Back in my Bohemian days as a struggling freelance writer in New York City — before I went all respectable and got engaged and stuff — my good friend Peri and I would occasionally play hooky from our daily responsibilities in the summers and head off to Coney Island for the afternoon. Sure, we'd stroll along the boardwalk with ice cream corns and scarf down "dirt water dawgs" for lunch, but the real attraction — as it is for so many — was the chance to ride the legendary Cyclone, Coney Island's signature wooden coaster, an official national landmark. It's quite an experience, and no small part of the thrill arises because the Cyclone was built before existing safety codes. While it's been upgraded a bit, those upgrades are decidedly patchwork in nature. I mean, they're still using the same 100-horsepower motor they used on June 26, 1927, when the Cyclone first opened.
If anyone's doing the math, that means the Cyclone turns 80 today — talk about respectability! And there's going to be quite the party to celebrate. I learned about it via Majikthise, who also posted some fantastic photos from Saturday's annual Mermaid Parade. The day's festivities include a special "octogenarian's ride," in which a Cyclone "dream team" of local 80-something coaster enthusiasts will take the day's first run. The first 80 fans in line will get to ride free of charge — no small savings, since a ride is now $6, compared to the 25 cents it cost back in 1927. There will be stilt walkers, a band, an appearance by "Miss Cyclone" (because what birthday party is complete without the cheesecake factor?), and the usual smattering of city officials that show up for such events.
I love the Cyclone, even though the entire structure is so rickety it feels like the bolts could come loose and the whole thing fly apart at any moment. (For all the sense of risk, the only time I was at Coney Island and a fatal accident occurred, said accident didn't happen on the cyclone.) So I was pleased to read in a Newsday article that the Cyclone goes through a routine daily checkup under the watchful eye of 64-year-old Gerry Menditto, a former electrician. His team is responsible for testing everything from the wheels to every inch of track. A couple of workers walk through the entire structure, striking the track with hammers. Any place that sounds tinny or hollow gets marked for repair. Broken bolts are replaced, as is cracked wood, and touch-ups of paint ensure the whole thing looks, if not brand spanking new, at least reasonably tidy.
Depending on what you consider to be a bona fide roller coaster, such rides date back to 17th century Russia, when the locals built enormous wooden slides covered with ice that featured 50- to 60-foot drops. People would climb to the top, shoot down on wooden sleds, and crash into sand piles at the bottom. Catherine the Great was a huge fan of them, and had several built on her estates. Pretty soon the French caught on, but lacking the icy weather of Russian winters, they opted for waxed slides, and added wheels to their sleds. By 1817, they'd started building wooden tracks, with cars locked in via wheel axles fitting into a carved groove.
The first coaster in the US was the Mauch Chuk Switchback Railway, a former mine track in Pennsylvania originally built to transport loads of coal down the mountain. When it fell into disuse, it was reconfigured as a tourist attraction. The Cyclone was designed by a man named Vernon Keenan, and cost between $146,000 to $175,000 to build — a small fortune in 1927.
The top speed is only about 60 MPH, paltry compared to the high speeds most modern day steel track coasters can achieve, but it was pretty intense in the Roaring Twenties. That first drop is 85 feet, at a 60-degree angle; writer George Plimpton described it as "vertigo-inducing." The ride features six 180-degree turns, 6 drops, 12 changes of direction, ad 27 elevation changes. Famed trans-Atlantic pilot Charles Lindbergh was one of the first to ride the Cyclone, and declared the experience to be "greater than flying an airplane at top speed." You couldn't ask for a better testimonial than that, and the coaster was an instant smash hit. There are still several "clones" operating all over the country, but Coney Island's is the one true original.
I mention the specs, because the key to the thrill in any coaster design is not just the drops, but the sharp, sudden changes in direction. That's why the Cyclone is still a pretty intense ride, even if it's not the slickest, fastest coaster in the country. Even at that relatively modest speed, the jerking motions are strong enough to send any unsecured valuables flying. I once lost a favorite pair of sunglasses that way, and Menditto, the Cyclone's primary caregiver, says he has a box full of lost cell phones, wallets, wigs, and false teeth — even an artificial finger. (Ew!)
The Cyclone — and all other roller coasters — can be more than just good clean entertainment, however: they're the perfect hands-on physics lab for introducing kids to the fundamentals of gravity, acceleration, potential/kinetic energy, and the like. Which explains why there are so many Web sites devoted to the physics of roller coasters; you can even build your own virtual coaster and have the coaster meter evaluate your design (I ranked a 6 my first try, but caught on fast and got a 9 on my second). Science teachers have absolutely no excuse for claiming they lack a lively, kid-friendly framework in which to discuss these concepts — not that I've met any who did. Most science teachers are well aware of the potential of amusement park physics (also playground physics).
Because there's so many excellent sites out there with information on the physics of roller coasters, I'll just touch upon some of the more interesting (to me) aspects, as they pertain to my beloved Cyclone. First, there's the matter of the wooden coasters, which resemble traditional railroad tracks in that the metal wheels of the cars roll on a flat metal strip bolted to a running track made of laminated wood. They're not as fast as steel coasters (the invention of steel tubular tracks completely revolutionized coaster design), and they're more rigid, so you don't get those complex twists and turns and spiraling loops that delight thrill seekers on more modern designs. Then again, the Cyclone sways a lot more.
(Jen-Luc Piquant reminds me that the French invented a wooden looping coaster in 1846, unveiled at Frascati Gardens in Paris — the coaster worked up just enough speed to drive the cars through the upside-down loop. A similar design appeared in the US in 1885, called the Flip-Flap, but it closed in 1903 because so many passengers were developing severe whiplash from the sharp, jerking motions.)
The Cyclone also employs the traditional chain lift mechanism to lift cars up the initial lift hill, before the car is released to plummet down that first drop. (I'll just assume regular readers don't need a refresher course in gravity and potential vs kinetic energy.) The brakes are built right into the track, not on the cars, and hydraulics are used to kick the braking mechanism into action at the end of the ride. But the reason even an old ride like the Cyclone can still offer a few thrills is the way the constant changes in speed, direction, and elevation can impact the human body. The smart people at How Stuff Works attribute this to the fact that a person's inertia is separate from that of the car. I'll let them explain:
"When a coaster car is speeding up, the actual force acting on you is the seat pushing your body forward. But, because of your body's inertia, you feel a force in front of you, pushing you into the seat. You always feel the push of acceleration coming from the opposite direction of the actual force accelerating you."
The effects are even more pronounced during steep drops at sharp angles, like that 85-foot, 60-degree angle first drop on the Cyclone:
"When you plummet down a steep hill, gravity pulls you down while the acceleration force seems to be pulling you up. At a certain rate of acceleration, these opposite forces balance each other out, making you feel a sensation of weightlessness — the same sensation a skydiver feels in free-fall."
NASA's Vomit Comet operates on similar principles — as does the Tower of Terror at the California Land Adventure Park, right next door to Disneyland. I spent the better part of Monday hopping between the two amusement parks with my former college roommate Shari and her family, who were visiting from Seattle. We took in the Indiana Jones ride, a river rafting ride, the traditional ride on The Pirates of the Caribbean (updated to incorporate an animatronic Jack Sparrow), and a Monster's Inc ride that will make no sense to anyone who hasn't seen the movie (like me). But the highlight was definitely the Tower of Terror. It features a facsimile of an old Hollywood Hotel service elevator run amok, rising to the top floor and then shooting straight down the "shaft" several times in a freefall. It's quite exhilarating; we went on it twice, and Shari's 17-year-old and 14-year-old sons enthusiastically declared the ride "totally sick." ("Sick" being the equivalent of "awesome." Apparently it's what all the cool kids are using as slang these days.) The boys have never ridden the Coney Island Cyclone, however. I think they'd think it was pretty sick, too.