It happened today - June 16, 2015
Anyone up for some excitement? Well, fasten your safety restraints and hold on to your hats because on June 16, back in 1884, the first roller coaster in North America opened at Coney Island. Then quaintly known as a “switchback railway”, it was a monster, accelerating to a breathtaking 6 miles per hour. And even though it cost a full nickel to ride, it created a trend; by 1900 there were hundreds of them around the United States.
It’s easy to make fun of the excitement people derived from what now seems so sedate. It’s hard to believe Ferris Wheels were once exciting, though to a farmer who had never seen the world from above it must have been amazing when the fair came to town and they could suddenly see the familiar landscape of their life all laid out below them like a model. And obviously if you suffer acrophobia then no matter how solid, safe and slow it is, you suffer paroxysms of terror.
Likewise it is impossible to read today with a straight face the account New York governor Martin Van Buren sent to president Andrew Jackson (whose VP and successor he would later become): “The canal system of this country is being threatened by the spread of a new form of transportation known as ‘railroads.’... As you may well know, railroad carriages are pulled at the enormous speed of 15 miles an hour by engines, which, in addition to endangering life and limb of passengers, roar and snort their way through the countryside. The Almighty certainly never intended that people should travel at such breakneck speed.”
Jackson wasn’t persuaded; four years later he became the first president to ride on a train. And nor were the rest of us. Modern roller coasters are far more dramatic, even terrifying, than that original “switchback”. Canada’s Wonderland alone has over a dozen high-intensity roller coasters and other thrill rides that go well over 90 mph, 80 degree descents, drops of hundreds of feet and so on. Now to be fair by 1927 Coney Island had the Cyclone, which reached 60 mph and had a vertical drop of 85 feet. So obviously the roller coaster arms race got started early. And yet it is impossible to argue that people back in 1884 only thought they were having fun and mistook junk for cool technology, or that no one could enjoy a black and white movie or a song on a lute.
The fact is that both excitement and enjoyment have far more to do with what is inside us than what is outside. Modern people are jaded; we eat far more, travel further, drop faster and take ludicrous quantities of antidepressants.
I’m not saying I’d get much out of the Coney Island original myself. I’m not immune. But when you reflect on the passionate excitement it generated, it should enable you to believe that people in the past were not miserable because they didn’t have iPhones, gas-powered lawn mowers and Velcro.