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History of Roller Skating in the United States :: Planet On Wheels

History of Roller Skating in the United States

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Considering roller skating wasn’t invented until the 1700s, it is relatively a new sport.  Compared to ice skating, which has artifacts that can date it back as far as 3000 B.C.  Ice skates were found at the bottom of a lake in Switzerland that were crudely constructed of leg bones of large animals and leather straps.  An unknown Dutchmen was the innovator who broke the barrier of skating beyond the ice.  Ice skating in the Netherlands was a common method to travel with the numerous canals that stay frozen many months at a time.  This unknown Dutchman crafted wooden spools to blocks of wood and the result was the invention of the first pair of dry land skates.  These new dry land roller skates were nicknamed “skeelers”.

Move forward a few decades to 1760 and a masquerade party.  Joseph Merlin from Huy  Belgium, an inventor and instrument maker arrived at the party sporting his metal-wheeled boots.  The inventor made a dramatic rolling entrance while also playing his violin.  The inventor’s grace drove him right into a mirrored wall shattering the next milestone in roller skate development.

Roller skates received their first official patent in 1819.  Monsieur Patibledin attached a wood sole to a boot that was fitted with four metal rollers.  The inline configuration of wheels was made of copper.  It’s also speculated that wheels could have been made of ivory or wood. These roller skates consisted of three inline wheels and a brake system that consisted of a screw on the heel of the frame.

Roller skates continued to evolve and gain new patents for various designs.  Various inventors such as Spence, Lohner, Garcin and Legrand introduced versions using Patibledin’s design as a basis.

The next notable iteration occurred in 1823  when the “Rolito”, a five wheel roller skate was introduced by Robert John Tyers.  Tyers’ skate still lacked the ability to make turns along a curved path which would prove to be the critical technical point keeping the skates from widespread acceptance. His skates contained wheels of varying diameter in order to take advantage of a principle known and “rockering”.  Rockering enabled the skates maneuver fast curves.  Tyler also employed a braking system on the back of the frame that proved to be more sufficient that early attempts made by Patibledin and others.

One of the first boost of publicity for roller skates came in the 1840s.  In Berlin, a beer tavern outfitted their barmaids with roller skates.  Due to the size of beer halls in Germany at that time, this was an efficient way to serve patrons.  The Corse Halle Tavern in Berlin was the most documented tavern to use roller skates.

Finally, in 1857 roller skating had gained enough momentum to warrant the opening of the first public skating rinks.  The Strand of London and Floral Hall enjoyed these first skating rinks.

Although roller skates had been born in Europe it took the ingenuity of American James Leonard Plimpton from Massachusetts to design the basic concept for quad roller skates we still use today.  Plimpton configured the wheels in the quad pattern we know today.  Plimpton’s “rocking skates” allowed the first ability to turn in a smooth arc on roller skates.  The boxwood wheels were mounted upon a rubber spring suspension.  Roller skating backwards was now also possible.  James Plimpton’s contributions in 1863 to roller skates were the greatest leap in roller skating since their inception.  Although his roller skates were a major breakthrough in the evolution in roller skating a major problem still existed.  Wheels would wear out quickly as a lot of friction was being unleashed between the wheel and the skate axle.  Plimpton’s solution was to add a brass ring seated between the wheel and the axle.  To further eliminate the wear and tear he applied lubrication to this brass “skate bearing’.  James’ efforts in the evolution of the design of roller skates netted him great profit.  Plimpton also opened a skate club in New York where Gentlemen skated to impress the ladies.

In about the same time period that Plimpton was busy perfecting his quad invention, E.H. Barney was developing a clamp-on skate.  Barney was another Massachusetts inventor who developed the clamp-on method for roller skates and ice skates.  The skates were designed to work by attaching to a boot versus the leather straps being used at the time. The roller skates could be adjusted by a screw on the bottom of the plate.  Some skates actually used a combination of a clamp on the toe and straps on the ankle of the roller skates.

The clamp-on skate evolved to become an adjustable plate.  This adjustable foot plate allowed for a single pair of roller skates to fit multiple sizes.  This adjustable foot plate idea lived on well into the 1960’s.

From this point quad roller skates as we know them today continued to gain popularity.  While the inline skate configuration faded into the background of this sport.  Inline skates were not forgotten and they still remained cheaper to manufacture and lighter in weight than quad roller skates.

Roller skates began to pick up speed in 1884 with the introduction of the use of pin ball bearings.  Pin ball bearings made roller skates roll smoother and skates weigh less.  Englishman J. Gidman had filed the patent for this idea 30 years earlier in 1852.  Gidman spent these 30 years trying to get roller skates will bearings mass produced.

The turn of the century ushered in the first roller skates that were made with boots pre attached.  This “shoe skate” was almost used exclusively by the professional skaters of that era.  The general public continued to enjoy clamp-on roller skates.  It was believed that shoe skates were unsanitary but these roller skates are now widely used and accepted for both personal and rental use.

Wheels at this time were still being made mostly of boxwood from Turkey or Persia.  Later, North American Maple and oak were used.  Rubber wheels did appear on the “Woodward” skate which dates back to 1852.  Wooden wheels continued to be the wheel material of choice up until about 1910.

Chicago’s Coliseum opened a public rink to 7,000 opening night attendees.  This was the largest public skating event to date.  The Coliseum was known for hosting some of the largest civic affairs in the United States.

Hundreds of roller skating rinks birthed over the next several decades across the United States and Europe.  The popularity of roller skates and roller skating had grown exponentially.  The sport began to fragment into different types of skating.  There were indoor and outdoor rinks that hosted not only traditional roller skating but also ballroom roller dancing, speed skating and what was known as polo skating.

In the late 1930’s skating rink owners came together to form an association in order to promote roller skating.  The association was also responsible for establishing the business practices of rink owners. The Roller Skating Association (RSA) was born.

The toe stop really came of age in the 1950’s mimicking the function of picks found on ice skates.  Although the toe stop did appear on roller skates earlier in 1876.  This was a simple rubber pad affixed to the front of the skate.  It wasn’t until the 1940’s that the toe stop began to be commercially produced.

The plastics technology of the 1960s gave roller skates their next boost.  Wheels were made available in new materials that were lighter, more durable and faster.

A match made in heaven of roller skating and disco dancing sent the sale of roller skates through the stratosphere.  This was considered the second greatest boom in popularity for roller skating.  Hollywood produced roller skating movies and over 4,000 roller discos sprouted from coast to coast.  The earliest known movie to feature roller skating was titled “The Rink” in 1916 and starred Charlie Chaplin.  Most recent was the 2005 feature film “Roll-Bounce” in which lead actor Bow-Bow (rap star) played a roller skate kid of the 1970’s.  Many more notable films have featured roller skating such as Xanadu with Oliva Newton John in 1980.  Our research revealed 41 movie titles that featured roller skating as a main theme or supporting story line.  Cable channel, A&E has also launched a weekly show entitled “Rollergirls” that is a docu-drama following the  lives of rollergirls who are members of the Texas Roller Derby (TXRD).

Again in 1979, roller skates found its roots being tied back to ice skating.  Two brothers. Scott Olson and  Brennan Olson, hockey players discovered an antique pair of roller skates.  These early skates were a pair of the original design before Plimpton’s design.  The wheels were inline.  The innovative brothers took the once popular design and began to update it.  Using modern materials such as polyurethane wheels rubber stopper affixed to the rear of the frame, the inline skate was revived.  They attached the inline frame to a hockey boot and gave birth to what would soon be known as the rollerblade.

Four years later Scott Olson founded Rollerblade, Inc.  Being that Rollerblade was the single manufacturer of this style of skate the term “rollerblading” was given to this type of skating.  The term immediately stuck with the public and is still used today even when referring to competing products of the Rollerblade brand.  Scott Olson sold the Rollerblade company early on.  His original idea and design suffered some performance flaws due to the fact that he used readily available parts such as existing toe stop designs being used on quad skates.  Investors bought Rollerblade and spent the development dollars needed to turn the rollerblade into a consumer ready product.  Rollerblade specific parts were designed.  Fiberglass frames and rear brakes were just some of the innovations.  Soon after the design was perfected and mass marketed other companies picked up the idea and began manufacturing their own versions of the rollerblade.

Some would say that not much has happened since the heyday of rollerblades.  Like roller skating the sport of rollerblading has fragmented into many directions.  Today you will find roller hockey, aggressive inline skating, inline speed skating and recreational rollerblading.

Our research into the history of roller skating has revealed what could possibly be the next boom for roller skates.  The Skorpion Multi Terrain Quad Roller Skate designed by Gary Reid of New Zealand is what we consider the next great thing in roller skating.  These roller skates, whom some refer to as “Hummers for your feet” are a dramatic departure from the current limitations in skating.  The design pays homage to some of the best ideas in roller skate development.  They employ an adjustable foot plate that can fit multiple sizes.  It is simply made in two sizes, large and small.  Using the innovative idea of roller blade ratchet straps the skates attach right to your shoe.  There’s no need to worry about the sanitary issues of Gidman’s time at the turn of the century.  This idea also allows you to share your Skorpions with friends.  The skates themselves are made from a resin developed by Dupont.   This material is incredibly durable and can withstand the off road abuse of outdoor surfaces.  These roller skates use ABEC-5 bearings that give them great speed and responsiveness.  The oversized wheels of the Skorpion Skates are made to give you the clearance you’ll need to conquer any outdoor obstacle.  The obstacles will also be cushioned by spring loaded suspension of the Skopion roller skates.  These roller skates are light and just all around fun to skate on.   Skorpion Multi Terrain Quad Roller Skates are exclusively available in the United States from Planet On Wheels. Gary Reid has definitely carved out his spot in this illustrious history of roller skates and roller skating.

This history of roller skating will continue to be added to as we research facts and collect new content.

Planet On Wheels