Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 337:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 337.

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 seconds.

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 work.

(Theme music)

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 from:

Ms. Debra Ford, Public Relations Manager
9001 Kirby
Houston, TX 77054
The 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.

The organization that rates roller coasters is ACE, American Coaster Enthusiasts.

Photo by John Lienhard

The Texas Cyclone Roller Coaster

Photo by Stephanie Lienhard

The old Coney Island roller coaster falling into decay in 1997

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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