The Chequered History of Roller Skating

The Chequered History of Roller Skating

Necessity they say is the mother of invention. Therefore it makes sense that the idea of skating on dry land, as was done on ice, resulted in converting ice skates into their dry-land roller skating cousins. In case you’re wondering, let’s first of all put to bed the origins of ice skating. Archaeological evidence speaks to their invention being a matter of survival. Around 5 000 years ago, the first skates were made of animal bones as a travel aid in Finland’s frozen winter landscape. So, who was it then, who decided on a dry-land version for travelling on flat surfaces in the summer?

Netherlandic Origins of Dry-land Roller Skating

Step over into Holland where ice skating was the widespread modus operandi to travel the country’s many frozen canals in the winter. Enter one unknown Netherlander, who sometime in the early 1700s invented ‘skeelers’ (skates in English) by attaching strips of wood to his shoes, which in turn, were nailed to wooden spools. Heavy-going no doubt, but on the flat surfaces of the Netherlands, these preceded the invention of the bicycle by German inventor Karl von Drais by 100 years!

London’s Smashing Entrance to Roller Skating

Some say it happened in 1775, others say it was in the 1760s and some say it took place at a London stage performance, whilst others maintain it was a party held at the inventor’s home. Yet another source has it at a masquerade ball hosted by one of  London’s flamboyant females, the infamous Mrs Cornelys of Carlisle House, Soho Square.

The story goes that a mechanic and maker of musical instruments by the name of John Joseph Merlin born in Huys, Belgium, in September 1735, moved to London in May 1770 as the director of Cox’s Museum in Spring Gardens. Notably, he exhibited a number of his pet projects: an organ, a piano and a harpsichord. Merlin also had examples of his work in his home on Oxford Street (affectionately known as Merlin’s Cave), where he displayed his unique invention, yes indeed, the roller skate.

Wherever it was that Merlin made his historic debut, he did so on his ‘metal wheeled-boots’. Again, others described them as a pair of black, wooden-braced, forty-pound wheeled boots that allowed him to move over the hardwood floor as if it were ice. Adding extra display to his entrance, he did so while playing his fiddle. A news piece of the day says this is how it was received;

 “One of his ingenious novelties was a pair of skates contrived to run on small metallic wheels. Supplied with a pair of skates and a violin he mixed in the motley group of one of the celebrated Mrs Cornelys’ masquerades at Carlisle House, Soho Square; when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity or commanding his direction, he impelled himself against a mirror of more than 500 Pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself severely.”

The mention of him being severely wounded alludes to the fact that he nearly lost his arm, which would have put pay to his fiddling days. What this did do was send roller skating back to the drawing board and the world of roller skates went quiet.

The Chequered History of Roller Skating 2

Berlin Sees Roller Skating in Ballet

The ballet, Winter Pleasure, called for ice skating but at that stage, no one could produce ice on stage. The brave return of roller skating found success in this production and in the hearts of inventors to come.

France Gets Skates Rolling Again

Monsieur Petibled of Paris was the first to patent his roller skate design in France sometime in 1819. His model comprised a wooden sole attached to the bottom of a boot and then fitted with two or four rollers made of copper, wood or ivory which were arranged in a straight line. The problem with the straight-line wheel idea is that it was impossible to follow a curved path.

Roller skating goes back to London

In 1823, London’s Robert John Tyers patented his roller-skating design, called the Rolito, which had five wheels in a single row on the bottom of a boot or shoe. Well and good but there was still no chance for a skater to go anywhere except in a straight line.

Berlin’s Barmaids Bring it on Roller Skates

By 1840, in Corse Halle, a beer tavern near Berlin featured pretty, young barmaids on roller skates, which wasn’t as impractical as it may seem given the size and length of the beer halls at that time.

Paris Sees Roller Skating in Operatic Performance

On April 16th 1849, “Le prophète”, an elaborate opera by  Jewish-born, German composer Goicoma Meyerbeer, premiered at the  Paris Salle Le Peletier. Among the invited elite for the opening night were the likes of ChopinVerdiThéophile GautierDelacroixIvan Turgenev and Berlioz, who all witnessed the scene in which performers used roller-skates to simulate ice-skating on a frozen lake set on stage. Roller skating exploded even more on the scene with the Grand Opera’s production of Le Ballet Des Patineurs (The Skater’s Ballet) an 1849 ballet by Paul Taglioni.  The result was that throughout the Continent, roller skating became popularised. The only thing was that roller skaters wanted the ability to turn in their skates in the same way that ice skating was developing.

London Opens Roller-Skating Rinks

In 1857 large public skating rinks opened in the Floral Hall of Covent Gardens and in the Strand of London.

America Hits the Roller-Skating Jackpot

In 1863, James Leonard Plimpton, a New York City furniture dealer, reinvented the roller-skating wheel and patented his four-wheeled roller-skates. His design comprised two parallel sets of wheels, one pair under the ball of the foot and the other pair under the heel. The four wheels were made of boxwood and worked on rubber springs. His design is considered the birth of the modern four-wheeled roller skates because they were the first dry-land skates that could manoeuvre in a smooth curve, which allowed for pivots and the ability to skate backwards. After testing the design out on his furniture on the floor of his furniture store, the shrewd businessman founded the New York Roller Skating Association.

Hit and Miss for Roller Skating Till the Turn of the Century

However, roller skating fell out of favour after this due to the invention of the bicycle, which understandably, took centre-stage for a while. In 1902 Madison Square Gardens in New York became a roller-skating rink and soon thereafter waitresses at drive-ins started wheeling meals to customers. From there, roller-skating rose rapidly in popularity, peaking in the roller-disco era of the ’70s and ’80s. In 1979, Scott and Brennan Olson redesigned roller skates using the 1960s inline skate, but making them more modern and durable, using lightweight materials with an ice-hockey boot. From this Rollerblade Inc was born. The rest, they say is history!

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