Inventor of the Week Archive
for a different Invention or Inventor
Roller Coaster Innovations
The inventor sometimes referred to as the “Thomas Edison
of the roller coaster” was John A. Miller, who earned
more than 100 patents related to coaster technology and ride
Born August John Mueller in Homewood, Illinois, in 1874,
Miller, who used this name as his professional moniker, embarked
in 1893 on a career that spanned nearly 50 years. When he
was just 19 years old he began working with a roller coaster
designer and engineer by the name of LaMarcus Thompson. Thompson
is generally credited with having created the United States’
first roller coaster in Coney Island, New York, in 1884 (he
patented his “Roller Coasting Structure” in 1885).
Before long, Miller was Thompson’s chief engineer.
In 1911, Miller was a consultant for the Philadelphia Toboggan
Company, for whom he designed at least a dozen roller coasters.
He later worked with Josiah and Fred Pearce on coasters and
also with Frederick Ingersoll, as well as with the Dayton
Fun House and Riding Device Manufacturing Company, which became
the National Amusement Device Corporation.
In 1920 Miller and Harry C. Baker created a joint company
called Miller and Baker, Inc. Via this enterprise, Miller
would create a mind-boggling number of coasters in a very
short amount of time. In 1920 alone, he built at least 15
coasters in cities across the United States. The men broke
off their partnership in 1923 when Miller established a business
of his own.
Miller constantly pushed the envelope when it came to roller
coaster thrills and technology. He would insist that drops
could be higher, steeper; turns could be sharper, the cars
quicker. His inventions included many safety technologies
that are still employed in today’s roller coasters.
These include his creation in 1910 of the “safety chain
dog,” or, safety ratchet, a device that would prevent
coaster cars from rolling backward down the lift hill if the
pull chain broke. This device attached to the track and clicked
tightly into the chain rungs. It is this mechanism that later
evolved into the hardware that produces wooden coasters’
trademark “clickety-clackety” sound.
Another significant achievement was Miller’s 1919
invention of “underfriction wheels,” or “upstop
wheels,” which keep coaster cars locked to their tracks.
This is critical for allowing the cars to reach high speeds,
turn at sharp angles, and go upside down, safely, even in
rapid succession. These are still found on nearly all of the
roller coasters running today.
Miller also developed a variety of braking mechanisms, car
bar locks, and various unique custom coaster cars and tracks
with whimsical names such as “The Dip-Lo-Docus,”
and “The Flying Turns” coaster (created in partnership
with Norman Bartlett), which had a car that sped through a
U-shaped, half-tunnel type of trough. The first ride of this
kind was installed at Lakeside Park in Dayton, Ohio in 1929.
He designed coasters for amusement parks all over the U.S.
and the world, including the “Wild One” at Six
Flags America in Largo, Maryland, the Revere Beach (Mass.)
“Thunderbolt,” the Cyclone at Puritas Springs
in Cleveland, Ohio (named on the Smithsonian Institution's
list of Great Lost Roller Coasters), the Big Dipper at Blackpool
Pleasure Beach in England, and the Roller Coaster at the Western
Washington Fair in Washington state. Today only a few of his
coasters are in operation, including The Racer coaster
at Kennywood Park near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Miller never stopped building coasters. He traveled extensively
to supervise site installations and consult on roller coaster
design, even during the last years of his life. He died while
working on a coaster project in Houston, Texas on June 24,
Since then contemporary coaster companies — such as
Custom Coasters Inc. or Great Coasters International —
have come to the fore but much of the technology Miller introduced
remains standard. Anyone who has ridden a roller coaster is
likely to have experienced the benefits of Miller’s
work and innovations.