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How roller skating developed from a novelty pastime to a proposed Olympic sport.

by Stuart Morgan

Image © stefanschurr226 |

The idea of adding wheels to footwear is over two centuries old. The first recorded use of roller skates took place in 1743 during a stage performance in London. Unfortunately, the identity of the inventor is not known. The first patent for roller skates was lodged in 1760 by a Belgian inventor called John Joseph Merlin, who demonstrated a primitive inline skate with metal wheels. Unfortunately for Mr Merlin, his invention failed to grab the public’s enthusiasm. In fact, it took another 103 years before James Plimpton, from Massachusetts, USA, claimed to have invented what he called the ‘rocking’ skate. This was a distinct improvement on the existing wheeled skates of the time, as wearers could easily turn around corners.

Mr Plimpton’s roller skate had four wheels set in two side-by-side pairs, and offered a pivoting action through a rubber cushion that allowed the wearer to turn in a curve by leaning to one side. This new design was such a success that the first public skating rink was opened in 1866 in Newport, Rhode Island. This ‘quad skate’ design allowed for much greater manoeuvrability, and it went on to dominate the roller skate industry for more than a hundred years.

Children’s Museum of Indianapolis

Traditional strap-on skates

The next chapter of the story took place in 1876, when William Brown in Birmingham, England patented a design for roller skate wheels. His goal was to keep apart the fixed and moveable bearing surfaces of the axle. To achieve this, Mr Brown worked closely with Joseph Henry Hughes who, in 1877, patented a ball (roller) bearing race for bicycle and carriage wheels, which included the elements of an adjustable system.

The ability to stop roller skates quickly also dates from 1876, when the toe stop was first patented. Toe stops are still used today on most quad skates and on some inline skates.


A modern inline roller skate

By the 1880s, roller skates were being mass-produced in the US – the first of several boom periods of popularity. Micajah Henley of Richmond, Indiana manufactured thousands of skates each week during these peak sales periods. Henley skates were the first with adjustable tension provided by a screw, which later developed into the kingbolt mechanism on modern quad skates.

In 1884, Levant Richardson patented the use of steel ball bearings in skate wheels in order to reduce friction, so allowing skaters to increase their speed. Four years later, the Richardson Ball Bearing and Skate Company was founded, which made skates for most of the professional skate racers of the day.

By then, the design of the quad skate had essentially evolved into what we have today. This remained the dominant roller skate design until near the end of the 20th century. In 1979, Americans Brennan and Scott Olson found a pair of inline skates that had been made in the 1960s by the Chicago Roller Skate Company. Identifying the potential for off-ice hockey training, they redesigned the skates using modern materials and attaching ice hockey boots.

A competitive sport

Initially just an occasional pastime, roller skating eventually gained sufficient devotees for it to become a competitive sport. The appearance of roller hockey was the first evidence of roller skating being taken seriously. This sport was demonstrated in the 1992 Summer Olympic Games, when Argentina won the gold medal. Roller skating was considered for the 2012 Summer Olympics, but so far has not become an official Olympic event.

The popularity of roller skating particularly exploded during the disco craze of the 1980s and, according to a US National Sporting Goods Association study, 2.5 million people in North America were playing roller hockey in 1999. Other roller skating sports include speed skating, figure skating, jam skating (a combination of dance, gymnastics and ice skating, performed on roller skates) and roller derby.

Earl J McGehee

Roller derby is a contact sport played around the world

Roller derby is a contact sport played by two teams of five members who skate around a track, and in which a particular player (the ‘jammer’) in each team scores points by lapping members of the opposing team. The contact aspect of the game is seen when players try to help their own jammer while physically hindering the opposing jammer. After roller derby was invented in the 1930s, professional competitions in the US became very popular. In 1940, more than 5 million spectators watched in about 50 US cities. Reports suggest that today roller derby – dominated by all-female amateur teams – is played by more than 1,200 leagues worldwide.

Essential components

While early skates often were simply strapped to a wearer’s footwear, integrated shoes and wheel platforms quickly became popular. Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, inline skate models typically featured a hard plastic boot, similar to ski boots. By 1995, soft boot designs were introduced, and by the beginning of the next decade, hard shell skates were normally reserved for the so-called ‘aggressive inline skating’ discipline (which focuses on new tricks, stunts and personal style) and other specialised designs.

A high boot which provides more ankle support is used for most skating disciplines. Soft boots are normally worn for recreational skating to provide comfort, However, skaters involved in more competitive disciplines often prefer a harder boot, either to provide protection against impact or for better control. Carbon fibre boots, which provide greater support with a lower cut and allow more ankle flexion, are popular with speed skaters. Skating boots may also contain shock absorbent padding.

Typical recreational skates use high-grade polyurethane (PU) frames. Frames for speed skate are usually constructed from carbon fibre, extruded aluminium or magnesium. Pressed and folded aluminium frames are also made; these are cheaper but less sturdy.

Gordon Morrison

An Argentinian attack during a roller hockey World Championships match

Carbon fibre frames are generally more flexible and weigh around 160-180g, compared to 170-240g for aluminium construction. Using carbon fibre can give a smoother ride, but this is offset to a degree by lower power transfer between the leg and the wheels. Carbon fibre frames with monocoque construction offers the same level of stiffness as aluminum frames while weighing only around 130g. The length of the frame can vary, up to about 325mm for a five-wheel racing skate.

Steel ball bearings are often used to allow the wheels to rotate freely and smoothly. Bearings are usually rated on the Annular Bearing Engineering Committee (ABEC) scale, which measures the manufactured precision tolerance, from the worst (rating 1) to the best (11) in odd numbers. Some manufacturers use their own rating systems and a number of producers now use ceramic ball bearings.

Most skate wheels today are made of polyurethane. In general, faster skates require bigger wheels, although large wheels take more energy to start rolling. Smaller wheels allow for faster acceleration and manoeuvrability. Wheel hardness is measured on the ‘A scale’ and usually ranges between 72A-93A.

Wheel sizes vary, depending on the skating style:

A hard rubber brake is often attached to the heel of the frame. This allows the skater to stop by forcing the brake onto the ground, and thus lifting the toes of the skate. Some skaters prefer not to use heel brakes, as they can interfere with certain techniques and tricks, and most aggressive inline skates and racing skates have no heel brake. In this case, stopping requires other methods, such as the ‘T-stop’ in which the skater moves one skate perpendicular to the other to increase friction and reduce speed, or the more advanced ‘hockey stop’, when both skates are quickly moved perpendicular to the direction of travel.

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Publishing Data

This article was originally published on page 48 of the November 2018 issue of SATRA Bulletin.

Other articles from this issue ┬╗