The History Of Roller Skating

Courtesy of "Roller Skating from Start to Finish" by Jack Trap

(Found on the Skate New Zealand site)

The whirring sound of millions of plastic wheels-the revival of roller-skating-demands some explanation. How did roller-skating start? Where and when? The official credit for making the first pair of roller skates goes to Joseph Merlin, a mechanic and maker of musical instruments, born in Huys, Belgium, on September 17, 1735. In May 1770, Merlin went to London as director of Coxís Museum in Spring Gardens and exhibited several of his pet Projects: an organ, a pianoforte, and a harpsichord. Merlin also had examples of his work in his home on Oxford Street (affectionately known as Merlinís Cave), where he displayed his unique invention, the roller skate. A news piece of the day carried this account: "One of his ingenious novelties was a pair of skates contrived to run on small metallic wheels.Supplied with a pair of skates and a violin he mixed in the motley group of one of the celebrated Mrs. Corneilyís masquerades at Carlisle House, Soho Square; when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity or commanding his direction, he impelled himselfagainst a mirror of more than 500 Pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself severely" After this fiasco, the sound of wheels was heard no more until 1790, when a Parisian metal cutter invented a wheeled skate called patin-a-terre (ground skate). However, it took twenty-five years or so for this unique skate to gain recognition. In Berlin in 1818, roller skates were first used in the premier of the ballet Der Maler oder die WintervergnUgungen (The Artist or Winter Pleasures). The ballet called for ice skating, but because it was then impossible to produce ice on a stage, roller skates were used.

The first patent for a roller skate was issued to a M. Peti-bled in France in 1819. This skate was made of a wood sole and fitted with two, three, or four copper, wooden, or ivory rollers arranged in a straight line. Because the rollers were of uniform size and alignment, it was impossible for the skate to move on a curved line. In London in 1823, Robert John Tyers patented a volito. In the British patent office the volito was described as an "apparatus to be attached to boots, shoes, and other covering for the feet for the purpose of traveling or for pleasure." The volito was five wheels attached in a straight line. This skate caught the publicís fancy and was a success! More skate patents soon surfaced, each skate a little more sophisticated than its predecessor. So skates started rolling, but slowly-it took the public twenty more years to make skating a phenomenal success. The Germans first made it really popular. In 1840, in a beer tavern known as Corse Halle, near Berlin, thirsty patrons were served by pretty young ladies on skates. This novelty succeeded in attracting much attention, not to mention the resulting improvement in service. And when roller-skating invaded the Grand Operaís production of Le Ballet des Patin- eurs (The Skatersí Ballet), skating became a sensation.

In 1857 public rinks were opened in Floral Hall of Covent Gardens and in the Strand, London. Soon other types of skates, with lines of rubber or metal wheels at the sides of the skates, became available. But it really was not until 1863, when an American named James Leonard Plimpton thought of putting the wheels on springs, that roller-skating began to leave its indelible mark on rink and pavement. Plimptonís skate had two parallel sets of wheels, one pair under the ball of the foot and the other pair under the heel. The four wheels were made of boxwood and worked on rubber springs. This skate accomplished what previous ones could not: it could maneuver in a smooth curve. Plimptonís skate was far superior to any other that had ever been invented.

Soon after Plimptonís skates were introduced, roller-skating rinks became popular social gathering places. In England roller-skating was the rage at the Crystal Palace, among other notable locations. But because most rinks were mismanaged and improperly regulated, this first great roller-skating boom did not last long.

Mechanical improvements in the skate were responsible for the next renaissance of skating. Skates with pin bearings, which made them lighter and easier rolling than the earlier models, were developed, and the skating craze was on again; this time it lasted until the 1890s. New and bigger rinks were built in large cities. For example, in Chicago the Casino Rink at Twenty-fourth and Madison opened in 1884 to crowds of thousands. There was polo played on roller skates, roller racing, and roller dancing. However, the advent of the bicycle in the 1890s captured popular attention and pushed roller skating into a decline for the next decade.

In 1902 the rumble of wheels (now they had ball bearings!) was herd again when the Chicago Coliseum opened a public skating rink. Opening night was attended by 7000 people. In 1908 Madison Square Garden was converted into a rink, and from 1909 to 1910 hundreds of rinks were opened in the United States and England.

Roller-skating remained popular until World War I. After the war, movies, dancing, and the automobile captured the publicís fancy, and roller-skating again declined, but it never completely faded away. The Great Depression made roller-skating popular again because it was inexpensive and a good way to get oneís mind off trying times. Roller-skating did not peak again until the late 1970s, but its popularity held steady. Millions enjoyed the sport through the 1940s. Thus the wheel on a shoe has come a long way, from the adventurous efforts of Joseph Merlin to the light, ball-bearing skates of the 1900s. And in the 1960s, technology (with the advent of plastics) helped the wheel truly come of age.

Perhaps the future of roller skating could be somewhat similar to what some of the original inventors had visualized.