Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rocking and Rolling -- The History of Rollerskates

By Alli Sinclair

My oldest kiddy-bop has just reached the age when rollerskates are a tad more interesting than The Wiggles. (And I can’t tell you how relieved I am about that!) I used to be an avid rollerskater back in my day (not telling how many) and hubby still enjoys the odd rollerblade here and there, so Miss Five is finding herself involved in interesting family discussions -- to rollerskate or rollerblade, that is the question.

So I can back up why rollerskating is better (and yay for its recent revival!), I delved into the history of these strange shoes with wheels and was surprised as to how far back this invention dates. The impact this invention has had on culture is quite impressive.

In Holland, in the early 1700s, the main mode of transport in winter was to skate the frozen canals. A clever Dutchman figured skating on dry land could be a good summer alternative, so he nailed some wooden spools to a strip of wood and attached them to his shoes. Voilà! Skeelers were invented.

In 1760, Joseph Merlin, a London instrument maker and inventor took it a step further, wearing his shoes on wheels to a masquerade party and proceeding to entertain the crowd while skating and playing the violin. Watching Mr Merlin zip around the floor entranced the guests -- until he smashed into a mirror that took up the entire length of one wall.

Taking it mainstream in 1818, a German ballet company held the Ballett Der Maler oder die Wintervergnügungen that was originally planned as an ice-skating extravaganza. When they realised ice on stage was a tad impractical, it opted to perform the ballet with rollerskates. Yay for creativity!

In 1819, Monsieur Petibledin became the first person to get a patent issued for rollerskates. He invented a boot with a wooden sole and fitted four copper rollers to it, arranged in a straight line. By 1823, another patent was submitted, this time by Robert John Tyers from London, who called his contraption the Rolito. This skate had five wheels in a single row, which were attached to the bottom of a boot, but unfortunately it couldn’t follow curved paths. Kind of a problem if there’s a pond straight ahead.

Back to Germany, and in 1840, lucky patrons at the Corse Halle Tavern in Berlin, were served drinks by barmaids rolling through expansive beer halls. Perhaps the halls gave the Londoners the idea of opening up the first public rink in 1857 at Floral Hall. Not to be outdone by the British, the Americans opened The Coliseum in Chicago in1902. Opening night had over 7,000 people attending. Later, in 1908, Madison Square Gardens in New York City, became a skating rink, and soon, from that moment on, hundreds of rinks opened across the States and Europe. The sport grew in popularity and new versions were invented -- ballroom roller dancing, polo skating, speed skating, and good old recreational skating.

In 1863, American James Plimpton designed a pair of skates that were more practical and a little less dangerous (in theory). He placed one pair of wheels under the heel and the other pair under the ball of the foot. The wooden wheels were attached to rubber springs that made the ride a little more comfy and meant the skater could change direction without twisting his or her ankle or breaking a leg. This invention was the closest to what we know as the current version of four-wheeled rollerskates.

As with any invention, improvements were made over time. By 1884, skates became lighter and easier to manoeuvre with the addition of pin ball-bearing wheels. By 1960, plastics improved further, and finally by the time the 1970s and 1980s rolled around (pun intended), disco roller-skating took over skating rinks. Hollywood cottoned on, and movies such as Xanadu and Rollerball appealed to the masses. Seriously, there was no shame in those decades.

In 1979, the Olson brothers, a couple of hockey players who lived in Minnesota, discovered an antique pair of skates that had wheels in a single line as opposed to the two sets of two. The brothers took the elements from these skates and merged them with modern materials, designing what we now know as “inline skates”. They formed the company Rollerblade Inc. in 1983, and sold inline skates exclusively around the world. Unfortunately, their design had many faults, so the brothers sold the company to new owners who improved the design. They incorporated fibreglass, which better protected the wheels so dust couldn’t get in, and the skates were a lot easier to put on. When they shifted the toe break to the back, the new model was complete.

Throughout the years, Rollerblade improved designs, and invented new models that were lighter and faster than previous models. In 1993, Rollerblade found a way to use the skater’s leg to stop the skate without relying on the original breaking method. Thus, Active Brake Technology was formed by attaching a fibreglass post to the top of the boot and the other end to a rubber brake that is hinged at the back wheel. This new change improved safety.

In our house, the halls will forever echo with heated discussions about whether traditional rollerskating or rollerblading is the best. Luckily, our kids have minds of their own and will ultimately decide what they’ll try. Who knows? In a few more years they might be riding the next generation of rollerskates and enjoying an evolved, modern past time for their generation. In the meantime, it’s fun to delve into the history of an invention that has brought great joy to many, and the odd broken bone.

I have to ask: which camp are you in?


  1. Loved the history on roller skates! I think I've still got my old skate key around here somewhere :-) Thanks for triggering a bunch of fond memories...

    1. Thanks Kenda! I'm glad you enjoyed it and how lucky are we've had a chance to enjoy such a cool invention?

    2. Kenda, hadn't thought about a skate key in years! I used to wear mine on a chain around my neck.

      Alli, this is a really fun post.

  2. I never got the hang of roller-skates and always ended up flat on my back or on my knees. Ice skating, though, that one made sense to me. I love this history. How clever people are!