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Roller Coaster
The History and Construction of Roller Coasters
11 minute read
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Tim Forestell
October 13. 2022

The History and Construction of Roller Coasters

Loved by children, families, and thrill seekers alike, roller coasters are the main event at amusement parks across the world. These attractions carry riders to incredible heights and speeds, but as we go from ride to ride at places like Six Flags or Canada's Wonderland, we seldom stop to think about where these complex structures originated, how they progressed to what they are today, and how they're built. This article details the history of these coasters, along with taking an in-depth look at their intricate design and construction that enables them to provide such an adrenaline rush to adventurists of any age.

History of Roller Coasters

The oldest ancestors of the roller coaster come from the 16th and 17th centuries in the cold climate of Russia. Riders on sleds shot down giant ice slides, some as high as 70 feet, crashing into sand piles that broke their fall at the bottom. 

Although these Russian inventions are generally accepted as the first "roller coasters", there are differing accounts of how they evolved into the rolling carts we saw years later in France. The most widespread narrative is that some Frenchmen witnessed these slides in Russia and brought the idea back home with them. This presented some problems, as France had a warmer climate than Russia and the ice slides would frequently melt, so the French started to build wax slides instead. Eventually, they would also add wheels to the sleds, and riders would barrel down these waxed inclines in rolling carts.

From these rolling carts eventually came "Les Montagnes Russes à Belleville" (The Russian Mountains of Belleville). Constructed in Paris in 1812, this became the first roller coaster where the cart, also called a train, was attached to a track. Fairly simple in its design, this attraction featured wheels of the train that fit into a groove carved into the track and guide rails to keep riders on course. This allowed the coaster to reach higher speeds safely and provided the basis for the type of rides that we see today.

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In 1873, roller coasters made their way across the Atlantic Ocean. The first American coaster was the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway built in the mountains of Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania. Not starting as a passenger ride, the railway was originally constructed to transport coal from the top of Mount Pisgah to the canal below. Mules would then draw the empty cars back up the mountain where they would be loaded with coal and then coast down the track towards the canal.

After the closure of the coal mine in the 1870s, the railway was turned into a tourist attraction. For just a nickel a piece, passengers got a scenic, leisurely ride as the mules pulled them up the mountain followed by a wild and bumpy ride back down. Over the next 30 years, scenic rides similar to one in Mauch Chunk were joined by wooden roller coasters more similar to the ones we still have at theme parks today. These rides became the main attraction at parks such as Luna Park on Coney Island and Kennywood Park in Pennsylvania.

By the 1920s, roller coasters had taken off and were in operation all around the United States. Although production took a hit in the 1930s and 40s during the Great Depression and World War II, a second boom in coaster popularity in the 1970s led to the large, and still increasing, number of rides we see across North America today.

Components and Design of Roller Coasters

Roller coasters have a complex design that uses gravity and momentum almost exclusively to take riders flying around the track and to slow them to a stop at the end. There are two main components important to the workings of a coaster that helps the train start and stop before inertia does the rest: the chain lift and the breaks.

The Chain Lift

The first component in the working of most roller coasters is the chain lift. Any amusement park goer knows the iconic "clack-clack-clack" of a coaster ascending the seemingly immense incline before the massive drop. This initial hill gives the train the speed and momentum it needs to complete the rest of the track.

Lacking an engine or alternative power source, the train can't carry the passengers up the opening incline without some help (and mules just aren't realistic options anymore). Chain lifts are installed on coasters for exactly this reason. These chains are fastened in a loop that is wound around a gear at the top of the hill and another at the bottom. The gear at the bottom is turned by a simple motor, which turns the entire loop to pull the train slowly up the incline. The speed at which the gear turns can be adjusted to move more slowly to build anticipation, and often stops riders at the peak before it releases, giving riders a few moments to take in the drop below before letting them free fall down the track. 

Cars grip the chain with "chain dogs", which are mounted to the underside of the car. These are designed so that they won't roll backward if the chain breaks, and they are what makes the "clack-clack-clack" noise we mentioned above. They are also the pieces that release at the summit to set the train in motion around the track.

Not all roller coasters start this way. In some newer designs, a catapult launch sets the train in motion. There are several types of catapult systems, some of which use electromagnets to pull the car along the track at a high speed, meaning a hill is not needed to start the ride. One other system uses rotating wheels on the track to move riders up the initial incline. These wheels grip the bottom of the cars and push them forward to where they'll start their descent.

The Brakes

Although the coaster is often designed to progressively slow the train after the initial descent, using loops and smaller inclines to decrease momentum, there are normally brakes built into the track close to the end to ensure it comes to a smooth and safe stop.

There are two categories of brakes for roller coasters: trim brakes which slow the train and block brakes which stop the train. The most common brake system is "fin brakes", which include metal fins that are fastened to the cars and clamps which are built into the end of the track or anywhere else the train needs to brake. A central computer operates a hydraulic system that closes the clamps when the ride needs to stop. The clamps close on the fins and the friction slows the train to a gradual stop.

How are Roller Coasters Built?

The Design

While designing a coaster, the planner must consider the target demographic. Children generally prefer small hills and gentle curves, families hope for a faster ride with many turns, and thrill seekers want extreme heights and speeds. After reaching the apex of the incline, the first drop is usually designed to be the steepest, fastest, and scariest. 

There are different types of drops that go into a roller coaster. The first are slammers which transition quickly to a flat section of track and "slam" the riders down into their seats. Another example is a 'double dip', designed with a brief flattened section in the middle of the fall, giving passengers brief relief from their adrenaline before sending them right back down. The final type of drop we'll discuss now is used in what's called a "gully coaster". This brings riders close to the ground before flattening out and gives the illusion of speeds greater than are actually reached.

Steel coasters allow for more variation in design, and can be built so that passengers stand instead of sit. This makes it so cars are suspended below the tracks rather than riding on top of them. Most of this original planning is done on a computer before moving to the construction phase.

The Materials

Roller coasters are almost always built from one of two materials: wood or steel. Wooden coasters are generally made from either Douglas Fir or Southern Yellow Pine and are then painted or treated to prevent deterioration. These rides use massive trestle-style structures to support the track and take a mind-blowing amount of materials to build.

Wooden Roller Coaster Support Structure
Trestle-style supports of a wooden roller coaster 

Take, for example, the 'American Eagle' wooden coaster built for Six Flags Great America in Gurnee, Illinois. With a 4,650-foot-long run and a double track (meaning two trains can run at once), the American Eagle is an immense ride. Using over 1.6 million feet of wood, 60,720 bolts, 30,600 lbs of nails, and 9,000 gallons of paint, this is just one example of the sheer magnitude of materials that go into the construction of a wooden roller coaster.

Steel coasters sometimes use trestle-style structures as well, though these are thinner than those of wooden coasters, or they may use thick cylindrical supports instead. Although these rides may not seem quite as material-laden as their wooden counterparts, this is not entirely accurate. Since steel is heavier than wood, the supports are even heavier than the wooden trestles but not as many of them are needed.

Steel Roller Coaster Supports
Cylindrical supports of a steel roller coaster

Consider 'The Big One', an attraction built at Blackpool Pleasure Beach in England. This ride needed 2,215 tons of steel and 60,000 bolts to construct. That's almost 5 million pounds of material! Now that we have some understanding of what is used to build a roller coaster, let's look at how exactly to go about designing and building these tourist attractions.

The Construction

The type and size of the roller coaster determine whether it is built on-site or in a factory where it would then be trucked to the site in sections and erected. Most steel rides are built in a factory whereas the majority of wooden coasters are built at the amusement park. 

Construction at amusement parks is generally done in the winter when the park is closed for the season. The area must first be cleared and prepared, which could involve removing plants, leveling the landscape, or demolishing any old structures in the way. After the site is ready, holes for the support structure are drilled or dug and a concrete foundation is poured. The top of each foundation point is embedded with connector plates that allow for the attachment of the supports.

After the foundation is built, the main support structure begins to be erected. The lower portions of the main supports are lifted and attached to the connector plates by a crane, and then are often braced while the upper sections are connected to them. This is the same process for both wooden and steel coasters and is unchanging regardless of the height of the support.

The main area where the two types of roller coasters differ in construction is the installation of the track. For steel rides, sections of the track are built in a factory with stanchions welded to the track supports. These pieces are then brought to the job site, lifted into place, and the track ends slide together. They are then bolted to both the main support structure and each other. 

On wooden coasters, beams are put in place across the top of the main supports along the intended length of the coaster. Boards are then installed on top of the beams to form a base for the rails, which themselves are formed from long strips of steel screwed into the wood base. After the track is built, the lift chains and brake systems are installed, and construction is nearly finished.

Wooden Roller Coaster
An example of the track for a wooden roller coaster

Now, supports are up, tracks are installed, and the only piece missing is the train. The individual cars for the coaster are built in the factory. This includes the body, seat, and safety system (seatbelt or otherwise) that keeps riders in their seats. Brake fins, anti-rollback dogs, and other safety components are also installed during the car construction process. The train is then shipped to the amusement park and set onto the tracks, ready to go.

After all the components are finished, electrical wiring is installed, the ride is often painted, and the boarding station (where parkgoers line up) is constructed. The ride is ready to go, and all that is left to do is enjoy. For an even more in-depth look at the details of designing and building roller coasters, visit this website.

Roller Coaster Records

Before we wrap up this article, it's almost necessary to talk about the fastest and tallest coasters in the world. The world's fastest roller coaster is the Formula Rossa at Ferrari World in Abu Dhabi. Opened in 2010 and manufactured by Intamin, the Formula Rossa reaches a maximum speed of 149mph or 240 kmph! That's over twice as fast as we in North America are permitted to drive on highways.

The tallest roller coaster in the world is Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey. Peaking at 456 feet and proceeding to speed passengers down a 418-foot drop, Kingda Ka is comfortably in the lead when it comes to roller coaster height. Not for long though, as another Six Flags ride is coming for the crown in 2023. 'Falcon's Flight' will open in 2023 at Six Flags Qiddiya located near Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. This thrilling new ride will become the world's fastest roller coaster, reaching 155mph, the world's longest roller coaster, spanning approximately 2.5 miles, and the world's tallest roller coaster, reaching unheard-of heights and featuring a 525-foot drop!

Never failing to awe with their magnitude and entertain with their thrills, roller coasters are always a hit among all ages and demographics. We've looked at where these rides came from, how they've evolved, and how they're built. Roller coasters have spread to every continent across the world (with the exception, somewhat obviously, of Antarctica) and will not stop growing in number, size, and speed as designers and builders continue to push their limits.

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Tim Forestell
Tim Forestell is one of DOZR’s co-founders and CCO. Tim got started in the industry as VP Operations for Forestell Landscaping before founding DOZR with Kevin and Erin. Aside from the amazing team at DOZR, his favourite thing about DOZR are the customers. Working with DOZR renters every day gives him a peek at the evolution of different projects and hearing stories about projects being developed from start to finish.
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