Today, come ride a roller coaster with me. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
Machines can be so much fun.
Take roller coasters: Two truths come clear with
blinding certainty as you free-fall into that first
and deepest chasm. You know without a shred of
doubt that you are going to die. You also know with
complete certainty that you are fully alive, and
that you will remain so.
If you aren't unlatched by that kind of cognitive
dissonance, then you'll surely grow in its grip.
The conflict of opposites feeds the creative act.
And that's why the roller coaster has an odd
metaphorical power for me. That's why I'm drawn to
it as an invention.
Author Richard Snow tells us about the 62-year-old
Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island. The Cyclone
riders' souls are tested in a 90-foot free fall --
in a 3000-foot ride that lasts only a minute and 45
Snow takes us into the building below. Huge
electric engines drive a 500-foot chain. It hauls
short trains to the top. A train is a string of
three two-ton cars. They're the 62-year-old
originals. When the train reaches the top, it's
dropped into space, and until it comes to rest,
gravity owns it.
The Coney Island Cyclone is the right place to look
for the roller coaster's origins. The Cyclone
marked the completion of an evolution. The roller
coaster was invented at Coney Island. Its ancestor
was a gentler ride developed by LaMarcus Thompson
in 1884. Showmen called Thompson "The Inventor of
Gravity." Now there's a lovely bit of hyperbole! He
spent $1600 building the first roller coaster, and
right away it started paying for itself -- at the
rate of $500 a day.
After the Cyclone brought wooden roller coasters to
near perfection, those majestic structures spread
across America. When I was young, as many as 1500
were running. Now only 85 of those great
purposeless machines survive. And enthusiasts
travel around the country rating the survivors.
They give top marks to a roller coaster right here
in Houston. It's called the Texas Cyclone. The name
is a tribute to the old Coney Island Cyclone. Ours
is a little bigger -- a little more here -- a
little more there.
But, in the end, it does the same thing for its
riders as the Cyclone does. It gives them a
delicious glimpse of their own mortality. And it
returns them to solid earth filled with renewed
excitement in being alive.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Snow, R.F., Gravity's Rainbow. American
Heritage of Invention and Technology, Vol. 5,
No. 2, p. 5.
Information about the Texas Cyclone is available
Ms. Debra Ford, Public Relations ManagerThe initial drop in the Texas Cyclone is
92 feet at a 53x angle. It reaches 65 mph, and the
ride lasts 2:00 minutes. The Texas Cyclone started
with a 3-car train, 4 seats in each car. Then it
improved performance by increasing the number of cars
and making them smaller.
Houston, TX 77054
The organization that rates roller coasters is ACE,
American Coaster Enthusiasts.
Photo by John Lienhard
The Texas Cyclone Roller Coaster
Photo by Stephanie
The old Coney Island roller coaster falling into
decay in 1997
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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