History Matters: High Rollers

By David A. Fryxell Premium

It’s relatively easy to learn how your ancestors made a living, but what did they do for fun? Well, if they lived through any of the roller-skating crazes of the past century and a half—notably the 1850s in Europe and the 1860s, 1880s and early 1900s in America—chances are they enjoyed taking to wheels. (We’ll try to forget the late 1970s and early ’80s boom, when America sprouted 4,000 roller discos and Olivia Newton-John skated in Xanadu.) Not just kids’ stuff, skating appealed to adults and even inspired “roller polo” in posh Newport, RI, during the 1880s.
The ice-skating Dutch first experimented with dry-land skating in the early 1700s. An anonymous inventor is said to have attached wooden spools, nailed to strips of wood, to the soles of his shoes. Soon “skeelers” were wheeling from windmills to tulip beds, if not quite as gracefully as ice skaters plied Holland’s frozen canals in winter.
The first named inventor of roller skates discovered these primitive designs’ navigational limitations the hard way in his spectacular debut at a London masquerade party in 1760. John Joseph Merlin, born in Belgium in 1735, was a mechanical prodigy. Impressed by the aptly surnamed Merlin’s gifts, the Spanish ambassador to England brought the young man to London in 1760. Soon Merlin was hobnobbing with the likes of J.C. Bach, Samuel Johnson and Horace Walpole, and having his portrait painted by Thomas Gainsborough.
Merlin made clocks and wheelchairs, robots and a “perpetual-motion machine” powered by changes in atmospheric pressure. By 1800, he’d opened Merlin’s Mechanical Museum to display his creations—which impressed one young visitor, Charles Babbage, so much that years later he bought a pair of Merlin’s “clockwork” figures. Perhaps in part inspired by Merlin’s tinkering, Babbage went on to invent the first computer.
But Merlin’s roller skates proved less than inspiring. Making a grand entrance, he rolled into the ballroom atop two pairs of iron wheels, playing a violin. According to a contemporary account, however, Merlin’s skates lacked “the means of retarding his velocity or commanding its direction.” So “he impelled himself against a mirror of more than 500 pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely.”
Not surprisingly, roller-skate development stalled for another 30 years. In 1790, a fellow Belgian living in Paris, Maximiliaan Lodewijik Van Lede, attached wooden wheels to an iron sole plate and dubbed his invention the patin à terre, or “land skate.” The first actual patent issued for a roller skate was also in France, granted to a Monsieur Petitbled in 1819. An avid ice skater named Robert John Tyers was the first to receive an English roller-skate patent, in 1823. Tyers’ “Volito” sported a row of five wheels, with the center wheels slightly larger to enable maneuvering by shifting weight to the front or rear.

Jean Garcin, who’d patented a skate design of his own in 1828, opened the world’s first roller rink in France. An enthusiastic proponent of the new sport, Garcin gave lessons and wrote a book, Le Vrai Patineur (The True Skater). He perhaps should have given more lessons, however, as his rink soon shut down after an epidemic of injuries.

Roller skates substituted for ice skates onstage as early as 1818, when a ballet entitled Der Maler oder die Wintervergnügungen (The Artist or Winter Pleasures) was performed in Berlin. Most famously, though, roller skates stood in for the bladed variety on a “frozen lake” ballet scene in German composer Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera Le Prophète (The Prophet), which opened in Paris in 1849.
French skater Louis Legrand taught the dancers to skate and designed new skates for the production. For the women, Legrand created skates with two pairs of wheels, front and back, on each sole. All previous roller skates had employed an “inline” approach; Legrand’s marked the first use of what would come to be called “quad” skates, a design that would later dominate until Rollerblade revived inline skating.
Le Prophète, along with another 1849 ballet titled Plaisier de Hiver ou Les Patineurs (The Pleasures of Winter or The Skaters), popularized roller skating not just as a stage substitute for ice skating but as a warm-weather activity. In 1857, Covent Garden and The Strand in London both opened large public roller rinks.
Two engineering breakthroughs fueled the roller-mania. In 1859, the Woodward, a skate using wheels of vulcanized rubber for better traction on wooden rink floors, debuted in London. And in 1863, American furniture maker James Leonard Plimpton patented the first commercial quad skates. They featured pivots that allowed the wheels to turn independently and rubber cushions enabling skaters to lean into a turn. Plimpton—whose popular design was soon copied, despite the efforts of his lawyers—installed a rink inside his New York City furniture store.
A second round of roller-skating popularity was triggered in part by Levant Richardson’s 1884 invention of ball-bearing wheels, which made skates lighter and rolling easier. In 1902, when the Coliseum in Chicago built a roller rink, more than 7,000 people jammed in the opening night. Madison Square Garden followed suit in 1908. Before World War II interrupted the craze, the United States boasted some 40,000 roller rinks. Roller derby—thanks to rule changes suggested by sportswriter Damon Runyon that increased the rough-and-tumble contact—attracted 5 million spectators in 50 US cities in 1940.
The most recent roller-skating craze followed the revival of inline skating by Scott and Brennan Olson, two hockey-playing Minnesota brothers. They’d been inspired by an inline boot skate introduced by the Chicago Roller Skate Co. in 1966, whose front and back wheels extended beyond the boot—resembling an ice skate’s blade. In 1980, the Rollerblade was born. By the late 1990s, more than 26 million Americans were on skates, rolling along much as their ancestors did, and roller skates once again reflected their roots in Holland’s summer version of ice skating.
Taking the Wheel
Resources to help you roll into skating history:

• Engines of Our Ingenuity: John Joseph Merlin


National Museumof Roller Skating

4730 South St., Lincoln, NE 68506, (402) 483-7551, <>

• Roller Skating Association International
6905 Corporate Drive, Indianapolis,IN 46278, (317) 347-2626, <>
Roller Skating Through the Years by Morris Traub (William-Frederick)
• Rollerblade


• Xanadu on Broadway Preview
Skate Dates
1760 John Joseph Merlin introduces the roller skate, crashes
1819 France issues the first roller-skate patent
1849 Portraying ice skates onstage, roller skates become popular
1859 Rubber-wheeled skates are introduced
1863 James Plimpton patents the “quad” skate
1866 The ballroom of the Newport, RI, Atlantic House becomes the first US roller rink
1876 Toe stop is patented
1935 First Transcontinental Roller Derby features 25 male-female teams skating 3,000 miles around a Chicago track
1937 Roller Skating Rink Operators Association is founded circa 1950 Skateboard is invented
1971 “Brand New Key” hits No. 1 on pop music charts
1973 Use of polyurethane wheels begins
circa 1977 Plastic-coated rink floors and disco music spark roller-disco fad
1980 Rollerblades revitalize inline skating
2007 Broadway revives Roller-disco musical Xanadu

From the March 2009 Family Tree Magazine