If you are one to be curious about how and why things are the way they are, you’ve probably wondered how roller coasters work.

Especially since they don’t have engines to power them.


Spoiler alert:  it has something to do with roller coaster designs.

Before we delve deep into the workings of your favorite amusement park ride, let’s take a trip down memory lane and see the evolution of the roller coaster. From the engineering to a few roller coaster designs to the science behind the thrills and adrenaline rush they induce. Hop into my time machine and let’s get going.

A Brief History of Roller Coasters

The ancestry of roller coasters is actually traced to 15th century Russia when people got their adrenaline fixes from gravity-driven sleds that ran down hills.

Fast forward to 1827 where the grandfather of roller coasters was built (the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railroad), not for providing thrills though, but for the serious business of bringing down coal from the Pisgah Mountain in Summit Hill. In 1873, it started giving scenic rides to pleasure seekers.

The idea of a roller coaster was born.

In 1884, La Marcus Thompson built the Switchback Railway at Coney Island, Brooklyn, NY, in 1884. That was the first American roller coaster. I guess that makes him the first roller coaster designer too.

Roller coasters became an instant hit.

And as happens with every popular invention, a race to create the next, best, big thing is always sparked. And that is what happened to the roller coaster. Soon engineers and entertainers started experimenting with roller coaster designs in order to cash in on America’s new found love.

Vertical loops were incorporated into the tracks, then loop-the-loops, and the race continued with many more innovative additions to both car and track.

Like the Switchback Railway, all early roller coasters were wooden roller coasters, and amazingly, some of them are still in operation to this day – like Leap the Dips in Lakemont Park in Altoona, Pa., that was first commissioned in 1902. If you want to ride a historic landmark, Leap the Dips is registered as a historical landmark.

From woodies, roller coaster designs took a quantum leap to steel with the introduction of the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland in 1959.

These new tracks were a twist in roller coaster designs as they afforded roller coasters the ability to do twists, turns, and inversions that were, up to that time, unheard of. Apart from these new moves, steel roller coasters brought with them new speeds that thrill seekers so far had only been dreaming of.

And today, different steel coasters boast of being the best in one of these areas. One such is the Tower of Terror in South Africa that boasts of being the highest G-force roller coaster with a massive G-rating of 6.3g’s . Another is the Smiler at Alton Towers in the United Kingdom which boasts the highest number of inversions at 14.

So how do these engineering marvels do what they do?

Roller Coaster Designs – It’s All About Physics

When a roller coaster designer sits down to work on their roller coaster blueprint, they have to design a track that will both be safe and fun.

And if you feel you can do a good job of designing a good roller coaster, you can try your hand at a roller coaster design game (like Amusement Park Physics) to create your own roller coaster. These roller coaster design games apply actual laws of physics and rate your final product so that you can see how it rates for safety and the fun factor.


Let’s get back to the science behind the best roller coaster experience, shall we?

Roller Coasters – Powered By the Laws of Physics

Roller coasters are amazing vehicles in that they don’t have engines, yet they are capable of traveling at speeds that powered vehicles struggle to reach.

The three main forces responsible for your screams and adrenaline rush are gravity, acceleration, and inertia.

Every roller coaster designer strives to create a track that makes these forces play on your body in ways that will make you experience your body in ways you’ve never felt before.

A good example is when acceleration and gravity balance out, giving you a feeling of weightlessness.

So where does all this start?

These forces start working even before the roller coaster starts moving, the force of gravity anyway.

This is why the first hill is always the highest.

As your car is at that starting point, it has a lot of potential energy stored in it due to gravity. As the coaster is released and starts going down, inertia and acceleration start operating on your body.

As the car accelerates forward, your body’s inertia tries to resist the motion, resulting in you feeling like you are being pushed backward, yet you are moving forward.

And when you go into a loop-de-loop, it is inertia that keeps you in your seat, making you feel like you are being pushed back into your seat instead of falling out.

Although the force of gravity will be trying to pull you down, the force produced by the acceleration of the train (often called the G-force) is at its maximum at the top of the loop and is greater than the force of gravity and it will work by pushing you up, thereby counteracting and overcoming gravity.

If you thought physics was boring, it’s probably because you never applied it to the fun things in life, like roller coasters. Perhaps schools should incorporate roller coaster rides as part of their physics curriculum, perhaps we will see more students opting for this dreaded subject.

Roller Coaster Designs – What Triggers Your Adrenaline Rush?

As roller coaster designs keep improving and becoming innovative (and scarier), different coasters have begun to cater for different kinds of thrills – like heights, speed, twists, and inversions.

Which design tickles your fancy?

Remember, if none of them satisfy your thrill craving, simply design a roller coaster on a roller coaster design game. Who knows, your design just might be what other thrill seekers are looking for.

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