The Science of Roller Coasters

The roller coaster has been one of the favorites of millions of people going to amusement parks worldwide for over one hundred years. The roller coaster has taken many shapes and sizes, from original wooden coasters which go up and down to the modern steel structures that not only take the riders up and down, but also side to side and even upside down.

While the origins of the roller coaster date back to the 1700's with Russian ice slides, the first roller coaster in the United States was patented by LaMarcus Thompson in 1885, as the Switchback Railway, which opened in Coney Island. The original concept by Thompson was very simple where passengers rode a car down about 600 feet of track, where they would switch tracks for the return trip back to the top. It was not the exciting, thrilling roller coasters that we know today, but it planted the seed for further development.

Many elementary scientific concepts play an important role in how roller coasters work. While getting a roller coaster started relies on a system of chains and pulleys to reach the top of the ride. Once the ride starts its downward descent the scientific forces of gravity, inertia and centripetal force comes into effect.

The force of gravity takes the coaster on its downward path without the aid of any mechanical assistance. Keeping the coaster on the track when turning is due to the concept of centripetal force. And, finally when the energy is expended and the coaster stops, the concept of inertia would be the reason.

Roller coasters have been around for over one hundred years and have utilized scientific elements to evolve into the modern wonders of today. Using the information that science gives us, creators of modern roller coasters make them go faster, with more thrilling turns, twists and loops. The roller coaster of today is a perfect combination of the use of science and technology, which creates thrills for all roller coaster enthusiasts.

To help explain the workings of roller coasters, past and present, we have gathered a collection of resources. Hopefully, these resources will give all readers a better understanding of the science involved in how a roller coaster works: