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What Prompted LaMarcus Thompson to Invent the Roller Coaster?

By Kevin Hellyer
Updated May 16, 2024
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Americans started to enjoy a more mobile society in the mid-19th century. Roads and railways began to flourish, and people, now more prosperous as a whole, began looking for new forms of entertainment. In essence, the idea of a vacation began to take shape in the national psyche. Brooklyn’s Coney Island, a scenic coastal area with beautiful beaches, was a popular destination. But alongside the wholesome fun of the area came more sinful pleasures, including gambling, drinking, and bordellos.

All this bothered inventor and businessman LaMarcus Adna Thompson, who figured people were just bored and could be distracted from their vices with more virtuous pursuits. He thought his newly-invented roller coaster would be the perfect solution.

Thompson had made his fortune inventing a device to manufacture seamless ladies' hosiery and retired young to focus on early versions of the roller coaster. His first, called the Gravity Switchback Railway, was built in 1884 at Coney Island. Thompson hoped the ride would keep people out of taverns and brothels and encourage families to have fun together.


  • The deeply religious Thompson became known as the Father of the American Roller Coaster. Over his lifetime, he accumulated nearly 30 patents related to roller coaster technology.

  • Thompson's Gravity Switchback Railway cost 5 cents to ride and attained a top speed of only 6 mph. He later added painted backgrounds so riders would feel like they were touring the Swiss Alps.

  • Similar gravity rides existed in France, but the idea never took off. The term “roller coaster” was most likely taken from a type of wintry ride that featured a toboggan on rollers.

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