The history of the roller coaster dates all the way back to the 17th century, when wooden ramps were coated in ice, and passengers slid down them using sleds with runners. These sleds on ice soon developed into benches on rails, and soon into trains on rails. Cars were manually pushed into placed, rolled along a straight track with a couple of hills, and either switched onto a parallel track for a return trip, or simply ended where they were. This design eventually evolved into the first complete circuit coasters, called scenic railways, which included lift hills, turns, and undulating layouts. By the end of the 19th century, however, the world was ready for coasters to go upside down, or so they thought.
Built in 1848 in Paris, France, the Centrifugal Railway became the first roller coaster with an inversion, a loop. Made out of wood, the ride consisted of a 43 ft, gradually sloped track followed by a single, nearly circular, loop 13 ft in diameter. The problem with this coaster, and its brethren which appeared in the late 1800s and early 1900s, is that the speeds necessary to traverse the entire loop (as there was a rapid deceleration near the top) resulted in extremely high G-forces (or G’s) at the entrance loop due to the circular geometry. One of the most famous of these early looping coasters, the Flip Flap Railway built at Coney Island in Brooklyn, NY in 1898, pulled as many as 12 G’s when entering the loop, and was known for causing countless blackouts and snapping rider’s necks.
In 1903, that same designer built a new looping coaster at the Brooklyn amusement park, but this time, used a loop that was much more oval shaped (though not quite the shape of modern loops), rather than the previous circular shape. This design lengthened the radius of the entry to the loop, where the speeds and resulting forces are the highest, and had a tightened, shorter radius at the top of the loop, resulting in a reduction in the maximum G’s experienced. While significantly safer than the older looping coasters, its low capacity combined with the horrific reputation of looping coasters at the time led to its quick demise. Couple this with the later developing Great Depression, and the looping coaster faded into a novelty of history…for the time being.
Opening in 1959, the Matterhorn Bobsleds opened at Disneyland in California with a brand new, revolutionary invention: the first tubular steel track. Unlike its wooden and early steel predecessors, which often used flat steel on wood or rectangular steel tracks, the rails on this coaster were circular in cross-section. This design made it possible for the track to be bent in any direction, and for wheels to reside on three sides of the track, greatly increasing the maneuverability and freedom of design for steel roller coasters.
Karl Bacon of Arrow Dynamics took this idea and set his sights back on the long defunct inversion. Instead of making a loop however, he decided to lower, extend, and twist this old inversion into what would become known as the Corkscrew. This inversion greatly reduced the forces exerted on the rider, making it much safer, and the new track design made it feasible. He built a prototype of his corkscrew coaster, which successfully proved the feasibility of creating safe inversions using tubular steel tracks. The first full-model of his prototype, the Corkscrew (aka Roaring Twenties Corkscrew), installed at Knott’s Berry Farm in 1975, became the world’s first modern inverting roller coaster.
The next year Anton Schwarzkopf decided to resurrect the long-defunct loop, creating the Great American Revolution which opened at Six Flags Magic Mountain. Unlike earlier attempts, this particular loop was clothoid, or tear-drop shaped, which lowered and spread out the g-forces better than any design before it…and so began the great roller coaster inversion revolution.
These two individual inversions (the loop and corkscrew) dominated the steel coaster market for the next decade and a half, with designers adding additional loops and corkscrews to out-do each other in the race to have the most inversions. Other companies also began creating their own looping coasters, and to keep things fresh, new ways of experience inversions—including from a standing position (Togo) and both forwards and backwards on shuttle coasters (Vekoma and Schwarzkopf).
Because of the limits of early computer modeling (especially for roller coaster), old engineering methods and physical models had to be used to calculate forces and visualize the rides, so inversions remained relatively limited and simple. Ron Toomer, of Arrow Dynamics, appeared in a video long ago bending a stiff wire into the shape of a standard loop to visually show the “modern” loop design, which is exactly how many earlier coasters were modeled. Soon however, early steel giants Arrow and Vekoma began taking these two simple inversions and twisted and combined them into brand new inversions:
1980 – Batwing - Orient Express @ Worlds of Fun (Arrow)
1982 – Cobra Roll – Boomerang @ Rafaela Padilla [opened in 1983 or 1984] (Vekoma)
1983 – Bowtie – Dragon Mountain @ Marineland (Arrow)
1984 – Sidewinder – Dragon @ Ocean Park (Arrow)
1989 – Butterfly – Goudurix @ Parc Astérix (Vekoma)
Between 1976 and 1992, Arrow and Vekoma coasters dominated the world of inversions, both in type of inversions available and quantity of coasters. Perhaps the most famous coaster of this era was the widely cloned Boomerang shuttle coaster of Vekoma, which traversed a loop and cobra roll, both forwards and in reverse, for a total of six inverting moments. Schwarzkopf held its own with some now-famous looping coasters and the first launched looping coasters, but never ventured from simple loops. The only break in this chain of Vekoma/Arrow-invented inversions in this period was the Heartline Roll (though it was centered around the center of the track/coaster instead of the heart), which Togo created for its new “Heartline” coaster design. The first of these to appear was Ultra Twister at Tokyo Dome City in 1984, but the new design only saw limited instillations.
From 1992 into the early 2000s, however, a new player would step in and steal the spotlight. Bolliger & Mabillard (B&M), the coaster company out of Switzerland and founded in 1988, began emerging on the scene along with Intamin in the creation of a new breed of looping stand-up coasters. As computer aided design (CAD) began to significantly improve, so did the designs of roller coasters. New design allowed a true “heartline” to be created in which the coaster could be banked and looped about, making for a much smoother, more precise ride when compared to the earlier Arrow coasters. B&M simultaneously invented a new type of coaster and a new type of inversion (and a new way to experience inversions), creating the first inverted coaster along with the zero-g roll (centered around the heart). B&M invented only four new inversions, but they significantly improved the experience of countless others:
1992 – Zero-G-Roll – Batman: The Ride @ Six Flags Great America
1993 – Dive Loop – Kumba @Busch Gardens Tampa
1996 – Immelman – Montu @ Busch Gardens Tampa
1996 – Inclined Dive Loop – Mantis @ Cedar Point
As the new century progressed over its first decade, computer power and the ability of computer programming and modeling seemed to improve almost exponentially, leading to a wild array of new and modified inversions. The Bent Cuban Eight, Norwegian Loop, and Flying Snake Dive are just a few examples of these “new” inversions which were created individually for specific rides. Coasters, such as Hydra: the Revenge, were designed with “standard” inversions (such as the Cobra Roll and Corkscrew) bent, twisted, and torqued in non-standard ways to fit an odd landscape and lower heights (due to smaller size and lower speed). Technology and design have even gotten to the point where we can now even invert the rider, with or without inverting the train, such as on the revolutionary 4D coaster, X2.
With the sophistication of computer aided design and the companies doing the engineering today, the possibilities for inversions and bringing about new “twists” are endless…the only limit is our imagination.