How One Inventor Tried to Save America—With Roller Coasters


In the late 19th century, LaMarcus Adna Thompson—the inventor of a seamless stocking machine and devout Christian—began to worry about the state of American morality.

From his factory in Elkhart, Ind., Thompson saw a country that was becoming increasingly interested in wicked and hedonistic amusements. Sinful diversions like saloons and brothels were steering the country in the wrong direction, and Thompson feared things would go off the rails entirely. His concerns over the decline of American virtue sent the successful businessman into a spiritual crisis. A coal mine (of all things) is what would lead him out.

More than 500 miles away in Mauch Chunk, Penn., a railroad track once used to ship coal had been converted into a tourist attraction. The car ran on a nine-mile track toward loading docks, with a 665-foot drop at the end. The acceleration all came from gravity, and in a time when thrill rides weren’t exactly commonplace, the max speed of around 65 miles per hour probably felt like a daredevil stunt. The Scenic Railway would eventually overtake Niagara Falls as the top tourist attraction in the country.

Inspired, Thompson (who was only in his early 30s at the time) sold his hosiery business and decided to devote his efforts to this wholesome entertainment. He’d found America's savior.

In 1881, Thompson drafted designs for the 600-foot-long and 50-foot-high wooden “Switchback Railway” which debuted at Coney Island in June of 1884. While not the first roller coaster in history, it was the first roller coaster in America, and is considered a forebear of the rides we enjoy today. It also helped Thompson earn the title of “Father of Gravity.”

Thompson had set his sights on the seaside locale because he saw Coney Island as a hotbed for the immorality he was crusading against, and while he might not have entirely eradicated hedonism from the place, he did provide a wildly popular source of innocent entertainment. Charging a nickel a ride, within three weeks Thompson was bringing in $600 a day, the equivalent of almost $15,000 today. The ride, with its top speed of 6 miles per hour, sideways-facing seats, and point-to-point tracks, was a success.

Within a year, those quirks had already started to morph into something more familiar to 21st century riders. An oval course replaced the original tracks and seats started to face forward.

Thompson went on to build 50 more roller coasters worldwide, earning millions in the process. He died on Long Island in 1919 at age 71.

[h/t Smithsonian Magazine]