Roller coasters are the workhorse of the modern theme park, but their rise to popularity has been long and strange.
Its precursor could be found outside of St. Petersburg in the 1800s. Massive ice slides called Russian Mountains were reinforced with wood, plunging up to seventy feet at sharp angles.
We can still see this origin in the words for “rollercoaster” in romance languages like Spanish— La Montaña Rusa—and other variations in French, Italian and Portuguese. Strangely, the Russian term literally translates as “American Mountains.”
A year before cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin orbited the earth, American Joe Kittenger took a lift below a two-hundred-foot helium balloon. The ride took an hour and a half in a tiny open-air basket that took him 102,000 feet above New Mexico.
When he jumped from nineteen miles up, the free-fall lasted four and half minutes. Kittenger's space dive began a long and costly race. After Russian Eugene Andreyev set an official free-fall record, an American Nick Piantanida spent the mid-sixties trying to bring the record back to the United States.