This Day in History (20-Jan-1885) – LaMarcus Thompson patents the roller coaster

Lamarcus Adna Thompson, who would later be known as the “father of gravity” started life first as a carpenter in Ohio, USA, then a successful businessman. By the age of 35 he had made a fortune after founding a company that manufactured women’s stockings. It is said that L.A. Thompson was inspired by a trip to the hills in eastern Pennsylvania, where a railroad line running through Carbon County had been converted from a coal transport into a tourist attraction. The Mauch Chunk Switch Back Railway was an 18 mile, mostly downhill course that featured a 2300 ft long, 665 ft high drop at the end. The railway was a success with tourists, who came by the thousands to ride every year. Thompson’s idea was to capture the essence of Mauch Chunk in a smaller package.

And so it was that the first authentic American roller coaster was built. Borrowing from previous unfinished designs and applying his own ideas, Thompson obtained patent for his “Switchback Railway.” The ride opened at Coney Island in 1884 and was an immediate success. Charging 5 cents a ride, Thompson was clearing $600 a day in profits almost immediately. The ride was very modest by today’s standards, standing just 50 feet tall, 600 feet long, and about 10 mph, but it was also something that had never been seen before. Riders boarded bench-like trains and coasted to the bottom on mild, undulating hills, and then repeated the journey in the opposite direction.

Thompson spent the next three years improving his design, obtaining another 30 patents and building the coaster in cities across the country. In just four years, he had built 50 of them. Thompson began to experiment with visuals, first with tunnels and lights, and then with scenery to create a new type of ride. The LA Thompson Scenic Railway combined elements of his earlier creations with visuals. The first one opened in 1888 with great success, leading him to form his own company, opened for the express purpose of building Scenic Railways around the world. The most notable was the installation in Venice, California. Opened in 1910, the track ran among artificial hills lights, and replicas of temples, foreshadowing attractions that would be built by Disney decades later.