History and Science of Rollercoasters – Lumen Student News

There’s nothing more thrilling than an exhilarating 400-foot drop, twisting, turning, corkscrewing and flying upside-down at speeds up to 100 miles per hour! You know…if you’re into that sort of thing.

Even if you’re not, roller coasters are an awesome piece of Americana. Nothing screams “summer” quite like the exciting whoosh of a coaster at one of America’s many amusement parks.

But did you know that the world’s first modern roller coaster was French? The Promenades-Aeriennes opened in Paris in 1817. But it wasn’t much like the ones we see today –those monsters came to be because of American innovation.

Today’s coasters originally developed from “scenic railways” using a design similar to coal cars…

American inventor Lamarcus Adna Thompson is known as the “Father of the American Roller Coaster.” His first coaster –the “Switchback Railway” opened at New York’s famous Coney Island in 1884. And it cruised along at an exhilarating six miles per hour!

Today’s coasters are a bit faster. Okay, A LOT faster. The Formula Rossa in Abu Dhabi is the world’s fastest –with a top speed of 150 miles per hour! In North America, The Kingda Ka is KING…with a blazing speed of 128 miles per hour. This coaster is also the world’s tallest at 456 feet.

But how do these marvels of modern engineering work? Well, despite their high speeds, coaster cars have no engines. Traditional coasters are powered by the conversion of potential energy into kinetic energy –the type of energy something has when it’s in motion. That’s why these coasters start with a signature big drop…to power the car through the rest of the ride, which consists of smaller hills and drops to continue the transfer of potential to kinetic energy.

Isaac Newton’s first law of motion is a good way to grasp the concept of how coasters work –an object in motion tends to stay in motion…even when it is moving up the track –against the force of gravity. And it’s the force of gravity causing seemingly constant changes in acceleration as the car winds its way through the track…and that’s what keeps thrill-seekers coming back for more!

It’s important to note that many of the newest and fastest roller coasters, including the Formula Rossa and the Kingda Ka that we mentioned earlier, don’t get their kinetic energy from a giant hill at the start but instead are set into motion by powerful launch mechanisms like hydraulics, compressed air, or motors.

However they get their initial speed, there are some seriously super-fast coasters in America if you’re the thrill-seeking type. And there might be one close to where you live…

Here are the top 5 roller coasters in the United States according to Thrill-List-dot-com:

  • Number 5: Apollo’s Chariot at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Virginia.
  • Number 4: Lightning Rod at Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
  • Number 3: Superman at Six Flags New England
  • Number 2: El Toro at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, and
  • Number 1: Twisted Colossus at Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, California.

Whether they’re wooden, steel, sit-down, stand-up, inverted, or suspended –roller coasters are an engineering marvel and an awesome form of entertainment!