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February 5, 2021

A Switchback Railway: Amazing Vintage Footage Captured Scene of an Early Rollercoaster in 1898

This dynamically composed actuality observes a popular Victorian fairground ride known as a switchback railway. This was a primitive kind of rollercoaster, with cars that only traveled up and down a short stretch of track. What is particularly interesting about this film is that it documents a Victorian fairground, a place where many early films were exhibited. This film therefore offers a glimpse of cinema’s fairground beginnings.

It is arguable that the filmmaker, Robert William Paul (October 3, 1869 – March 28, 1943), missed a trick by not placing the camera inside one of the moving cars to simulate the ride from the passenger’s perspective, although he might have had difficulty keeping the camera steady. Nonetheless, the film was clearly a success, so much so that James Williamson and the Riley Brothers released their own switchback railway films only a few months later.

LaMarcus Thompson’s Gravity Switchback Pleasure Railway debuted in 1884 in Coney Island on the site where the Cyclone thrills today. Thompson’s 1885 patent was titled “A Roller Coasting Structure” and his gravity-powered ride which took its inspiration from a mining railway is known as America’s first roller coaster.

LaMarcus Thompson’s Switchback Railroad was the world’s first roller coaster, 1884. The ride had two style cars in this photo. The car in the distance, which seated passengers sideways to enjoy the view, was the original design.

In Coney Island, the first cars seated passengers sideways and went 6 miles per hour over 600 feet of undulating track. When people waited on line for up to three hours to ride, a reporter for the New York Sun proclaimed that “Coasting” was all the rage in Coney this season. As for the nickel ride: “It combined the effect of seasickness, imparted by the primeval swing, with the rush of a runaway ice wagon on a down grade; but besides all this there is a feeling of sailing through space which is elsewhere unattainable without the assistance of a balloon.”

By 1888, Thompson had been granted 30 patents and had built at least 20 roller coasters in the U.S. and 24 more abroad including several in the U.K., according to Robert Cartmell’s The Incredible Scream Machine.


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