Why roller coaster loops aren’t circular anymore

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The G-forces were out of this world.

If you’ve ever been on a modern looping roller coaster, you’ve probably experienced a thrilling, safe, and mostly comfortable ride. But this wasn’t always the case. Just over 100 years ago, loop-the-loops were painful, not sturdy, and much more dangerous than they are today.

Between the 1840s and early 1900s, loops on roller coasters were perfectly circular — meaning riders would go from traveling in a fairly straight line to immediately moving into a curve. This rapid onset of curvature caused extreme G-force spikes that rattled passengers to their core.

The first looping roller coaster in North America — Coney Island’s Flip Flap Railway — could exert up to 14 G’s on a person. For reference, astronauts in a spaceship launch experience 3 G’s. Fighter pilots with very special equipment and training can handle 10 G’s for short periods of time. Fourteen G’s was (and still is) tremendous.


Library of Congress
The Flip Flap Railway on Coney Island.

More people paid to watch others ride these early coasters rather than ride themselves. Without sustained success, most looping coasters closed down within their first decade of operation.

Looping coasters wouldn’t find success again until the 1970s with a new loop shape, new materials, many more cars — and, thankfully, fewer G’s. In this video, we break down all the advancements that helped make looping coasters the popular ride they are today.

You can find this video and all of Vox’s videos on our YouTube channel.

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