The History and Development of Coaster Propulsion Systems
Welcome one and all to another wonderful journey of the history of something we hold dearer to us than money. Roller Coasters! CoasterJunkie is back again to placate your cerebral cortexes with more wonderful information on the development of the amusement industry we know and love today. So please keep arms down, head back, and get ready for story of pure adrenaline and pumped full of that thing we crave. SPEED!
As we all know, roller coasters basically run on nothing more than gravity and LOADS of calculations. A traditional coaster starts off with some form of vehicle and track. Not to force physics on you, but to make a coaster go, you need to have kinetic energy. The only way for kinetic energy to happen is for a buildup of potential energy. A normal coaster builds potential energy by pulling the car to an apex (the highest point on the ride) and using the energy it stores to power it though the rest of the ride. For most coasters this is a perfectly fine way of enjoying thrills. But what if you could completely remove all known forms of chains and slow ascents and replace them with instant kinetic energy? Houston, we have LAUNCH!
The concept for the launch coaster was initially started back in the 1970's by 2 well known coaster companies. Arrow Development (a.k.a Arrow Dynamics) and the Schwarzkopf Company. There will be debate for years about who was first or whatnot, but according to years, both companies released their versions of a launched coaster in the mid 1970s. Initial launched coasters had very primitive, yet ingenious forms of propulsion. Arrow had a motor and cable driven model. They called their version a "Launched Loop". It basically consisted of 2 raised platforms and a vertical loop in the middle.
The train would launch about 40 or so mph off of 1 platform, through a vertical loop, and back up to another platform. The train would then be propelled backwards off of the second platform and then sent to traverse the course again in reverse until it resumed back at the original platform. Schwarzkopf, on the other hand, designed 2 different types of launch systems. One involved a weight drop mechanism; the other was a high speed flywheel system. The weight-drop system would involve a large vertical tube, under the first vertical spike, that housed a giant form of weight that would drop down and in turn, it would pull a cable that pulled the car. The flywheel design was very simple yet effective form of launch. A motor would constantly spin a flywheel at high speeds and when a train was ready to launch, the flywheel would grab a cable that launched the train. His layouts were the same for both types. The layout basically consisted of two vertical "spikes" at each end of the track and a vertical loop directly after the station. The train would launch out of the station, though the loop, and up the first vertical spike. The train would then loose momentum at the top of the spike and proceed to travel the course again in reverse. Once it went through the loop and station, it would go up the 2nd or "reverse" spike. After it lost momentum again, it would travel forwards down the reverses spike until it returned to the station.
Now that we have learned about the initial phase of launched coasters, why don't we put a little more juice into the system? In 1996, Intamin AG would introduce a ride that not only boggled the mind with how it worked. but it also topped off at 415ft. and 100mph!
Introducing the world of LINEAR INDUCTION! Imagine finally being able to launch a car at incredible speed without any moving parts. So now, we may bring you Superman: The Escape! Linear Induction Motors (or Linear Synchronous Motors if you want to be technical) gave a coaster the ability to launch at any speed you wanted by simply increasing the power and length of a launch track. Many coasters and rides use this form of technology today for launching and braking. The simplest way to describe a LIM launch is to think about 2 magnets. Turn the magnets towards each other one way and they will attract each other, and if you put them another way they will repel each other. This is basically how the coaster launches. Magnets somewhere on the car will attract and repel magnets that are somewhere on the track. Many companies including Intamin, Premier Rides and Vekoma, use some form of LIM or LSM to power their coasters.
The next big leap in launch technology seems to be a very simple concept. Companies have used some form of motor and electricity to power their launches for a while now, but why don't we use something that is very easy to come by. why not air? Introducing the next level of launch technology. PNUMATIC!! For a pneumatic launched coaster, we would have to turn to the master of air. In 1994, a small company was started with one simple idea.
S&S brought the world the joy of being the only company in the world to build rides that power entirely by compressed air! Stan Checkettes is the brainchild behind this incredible innovation. The world was first introduced to the worlds first "Pneumatic Launch Coaster" simply called "Thrust-Air 2000". This coaster had the world's fastest acceleration at an INCREDIBLE 0-80mph launch in 1.8 seconds!! Can you say "GONE!" The layout was pretty simple, yet quite unique. The train would launch, then suddenly scream up a vertical (that's right, 90 degrees) incline. The train would then crest the tight top for awesome airtime. Then it would plunge 90 degrees down and do a turn until it hit the breaks. A launch system this incredible has limitless possibilities in coaster design and layout because of its short launch track and endless track configurations. Just to show the world how INSANE Stan is, he devised a coaster for a park in Japan called "Dodonpa". This coaster has acceleration that is unlike any launch known. Dodonpa launches from 0-117mph in 1.8 seconds!!! Anyone with a basic knowledge of physics can tell you that acceleration at that rate is absolutely FAST!!!! The future is still uncertain for pneumatic launch, but hopefully some park will understand the potential of Stan's dream, and bring to life a coaster that does 0-200 in less than 2 seconds!
The most recent innovation in coaster launch technology is one of my personal favorites. Me being an engineering student (and most of you having some kind of understanding to the basics of engineering) understand the basics that when a lot of fluid is forced through a small opening, it creates an incredibly accelerated flow on the other side. This general principal is the basis for the Hydraulic Launch Coaster! One major benefit of a hydraulic launch coaster is the fact that the acceleration is constant, which provides a very smooth (yet POWERFUL) trip down the launch track. In 2002, Intamin gave us another wonderful leap in launch technology when they opened their version of the hydraulic launch coaster, or what they called "rocket coaster". Xcelerator was the first coaster in history to be launched using a hydraulic powered motor! This concept was instantly a hit and parks began to see many possibilities for this and started to contract Intamin for different coasters. One major coaster, is a ride that we all know and love. A ride that set unprecedented standards, and blew our minds with its staggering height and speed record breaking. In 2003, Cedar Point opened its vision of an Intamin rocket coaster. This coaster would launch from 0-120mph in under 4 seconds, and would have a height of 420ft, with a drop of 400ft while doing a 270 degree spiral!!! Introducing TOP THRILL DRAGSTER!!! Several other rocket coasters have sprung up since then, even one with inversions (which I must say is an AWESOME ride!), but nothing will compare to the impact that dragster had on the coaster world.
So now what is to come? There are still many other forms of launched coaster to yet be designed (I've even toyed with a water launch system), so I feel that we have not seen the end of launch evolution. Even as we speak, there are a few companies working on their own version of a launch mechanism so we are definitely not at the end of this incredible innovation. I sincerely hope that you have enjoyed this journey into acceleration past, and that maybe you might have actually learned something you never knew before. But for now, this is CoasterJunkie saying. support your local park (unless it sux!), and KEEP ON COASTIN'!
Jeff Kauffman is an editor for the RCPro Network. He can be reached with questions, comments, or just telling him how much he sucks via e-mail: here.