The How roller coasters work.


How do roller coasters work?

Stand up, sit down, around and around you go! Roller coasters are one a huge money-maker in the United States and all around the world as inventors continue to capitalize on people’s love of a good thrill! Roller coasters are huge machines that seat many passengers, all of whom are just waiting to be spun through the air by the massive pieces of steel or wood. Amusement parks are continually trying to cram in even more roller coasters all the time and are always trying to make them bigger, faster, and scarier than the ones before it, so that they can give their clientele the very biggest bang for their buck.

Even though roller coasters propel you through the air, shoot you through tunnels, and zip you down and around many hills and loops, they are quite safe and can prove to be a great way to get scared, feel that sinking feeling in your stomach, and still come out of it wanting to do it all over again! But what makes you feel like this and just why would anyone want to experience such terror? Just how do roller coasters work and how can you make sure that they are safe enough for you to ride? And just what exactly, is happening to your body as you take a ride on one? Here we’ll take a close look at the very simple basics roller coasters need to work.

It was a combination of Russian and French efforts in the 16th or 17th century that brought about what we know of today as the roller coaster. What inspired the idea, and what could technically be called the very first roller coasters, which were actually hills and mountains in Russia that would become covered in ice. It then became popular to fashion sleds out of ice or wood and slide down these huge patches of ice, landing in a pile of soft sand at the bottom. However, because these mountains and hills could reach heights of 70 feet, this hobby was more than simply sledding or tobogganing.

When the idea came to France, the climate was too warm to keep the ice frozen enough to provide a proper slide. To fix this problem they began to create wax slides, which eventually developed into carts with wheels, which is much more like the roller coasters we know today. In 1817 France became the first country to develop a ride that consisted of a cart that was attached to tracks by wheels. This roller coaster was known as the Russes a Belleville. The French then decided to build on this idea until they had much more complex rides. The first roller coaster in America was the Mauch Chunk Switchback Railway in Pennsylvania and it was built in the mid-1800s. The ride was originally built throughout the mountains so that coal could be sent up when needed. However, the ride was soon open to the public who could take a scenic tour for the fee of $1. It was in the 1920s that roller coasters became big business in America and there were more than 2,000 throughout the entire country.

The Parts of a Roller Coaster

Although you may want to think of the machine that has your life in its hands as a complex network of interlocking devices, safety devices, motors, and electronics, there are actually very few parts that make up a roller coaster. A roller coaster can mostly be thought of as a train on tracks. Of course, it varies somewhat – the cars are considerably smaller and you’re confined in them while there is generally nothing above your head or your sides, leaving you open to the elements. A roller coaster also differs largely from a passenger train because it has no motor or power source and uses mainly only natural forces such as gravity and momentum, and brakes to stop.

All roller coasters have a lift, which takes the ride up to a very high point, usually at the very beginning of the ride. The traditional type of lift that’s used is the chain lift and this is simply a line of chain that runs underneath the cars along the hill and the chain is wound around one gear at the top and one at the bottom. The only motor that is used in a roller coaster is actually used for this gear and not the actual roller coaster. This gear simply turns, causing the chain lift to turn. The coaster cars in turn, all have chain dogs attached to the bottom of them, which are very strong hooks. These hooks clasp onto the chain lift and this moves the cars along as though they were on a conveyor belt. The lift will then move the cars all the way to the top of the hill where the chain dogs will be released and the roller coaster will begin its descent down the huge drop.

There are other types of lifts used by some roller coasters, such as the catapult-launch lift. These roller coasters work differently in the way that instead of using energy of dragging the roller coaster up the hill, a catapult-launch lift builds up a large amount of energy in a short period of time. One way to do this is to use a linear-induction motor which will use electromagnetic energy by placing one magnet at the end of the track and one on the first car of the roller coaster. This way, the roller coaster is being pulled towards the end of the track rather than pushed, as it would be with a conventional lift. These types of lifts are usually used to increase speed and precision. Another type of lift that’s sometimes used is to arrange two rows of wheels in which the roller coaster cars will attach between. As the cars are pushed along the wheels at the top or the bottom of the roller coaster car, it will be moved along.

Although roller coasters don’t use motors and rely strictly on natural forces to get it going, it’s not practical to simply wait until the roller coaster runs out of steam for it to stop. For this reason, brakes are an essential part of a roller coaster. The brakes of a roller coaster consist of clamps that are actually built right into the track itself. At the end of the track, and at other points along it, there are series of vertical fins which hit against the bottom of the car when it’s time for the roller coaster to stop. It’s the friction caused by these fins hitting the cars that brings the coaster to a stop. These clamps are run by a hydraulic system, which communicates with a central computer that will tell it when it’s time to stop.

Roller Coasters and Energy

When you consider how all of this hardware comes together to bring about the effect of rushing down hills, through loops, and doing it all over again, it really all boils down to energy. Two different forms of energy: potential energy and kinetic energy. The effect that these two types of energy have on each other can be understood if you think about riding a bike up a hill. When you reach the top and start going down, the speed at which you will do so will be determined by how high the hill (and you) were to begin with.

This is very much the same with roller coasters. Roller coasters build up potential energy as they make their ascent at the beginning of the ride. This potential energy works with gravity once the coaster reaches the top of the hill because the father up the roller coaster goes, the father down gravity can pull it. Once the coaster starts traveling down the hill and this energy is released, this is called kinetic energy and its what gives the coaster the ability to fly down the hill. This is what makes the roller coaster continue down the hill – gravity continues to push it down while the potential energy is continually being turned into kinetic energy as the coaster goes down the hill.

However, if this was all it took to make roller coasters work, the ride would be just one giant hill. So how do you get all the loops and turns and small hills without losing so much potential energy that it cannot turn itself into kinetic energy? This too is quite simple and it’s all due to Newton’s law of motion, which states that once an object is in motion, it will stay in motion. Once the coaster has been set into forward motion at great speeds, it will continue to move forward, even if it is climbing up a smaller hill and working against the natural forces of gravity. Add to this the fact that as it begins to climb these smaller hills and loops, the coaster is building up more potential energy which it will then turn back into kinetic energy. Following this, you can see how roller coasters are constantly creating potential energy, turning it into kinetic energy, and then reverting back to potential energy.

This constant change is what makes the ride of roller coasters so much fun! It’s the consistency of continually speeding up and slowing down that lend the true feel of the thrill to any coaster. As the coaster’s track moves along, the hills tend to become smaller and the coaster starts to slow down. This is because the original potential energy that was built up at the beginning of the ride starts to lose it as soon as the ride starts. Throughout the ride, this energy is not only being turned into kinetic energy but is also being lost to the friction between the cars and the tracks as well as the cars and the air itself. It’s this gradual loss of energy and speed that will work with the brakes to bring the coaster to a complete stop.

The Forces of a Roller Coaster

So what does all of this have to do and why does it make you love (or hate) roller coasters so much? Well it only makes sense that while all of this shifting of energy is going on within the cart and the track, it would also be having an affect on you, who is sitting in the cart! All of the forces such as gravity, that are pulling and pushing the carts are also working within your body and causing you to feel many different things.

The first force that you feel is that of gravity, which pulls you down. Although gravity is always pulling you down, this sensation is much different on a roller coaster than it is when you’re standing on firm ground for two different reasons. The first is of course, because you are being pulled at great speeds while gravity is pulling you down and the other reason is because there’s no ground stopping gravity from pulling you. When you’re on the ground, gravity is pulling you down, but only down until the ground beneath you stops it. This is because the ground pushes you up, stopping gravity from pulling you right to the center of the earth. When you’re on a roller coaster, there’s nothing to stop gravity until another force does, pulling you straight down.

The other force that is affecting your body is that concerning Newton’s law of motion, which states that once an object is in motion, it will stay in motion. This means that as your body is being propelled forward by the energy and downward by gravity, once the ride starts to slow down or stop, your body still wants to keep moving forward. It is in fact, only your safety harness which keeps you pulled back against your seat. This is the force of acceleration.

The forces of acceleration and gravity are constantly working against each other and the levels of each are shifting with every move of the roller coaster, which results in you feeling many different things when you are riding one. Mostly though what you will be feeling is inertia. Even though the force of the acceleration will be coming from behind you as the roller coaster travels up the lift, the force will feel as though it’s coming from in front of you, due to the inertia you will be experiencing.

If you’re sitting in a roller coaster and it starts to fall down a very high hill, gravity will be pulling you down although the force of acceleration makes you feel as though you are being pushed forward. Sometimes during the ride, these forces can counteract each other, which will make you feel as though you are weightless or free-falling. However, when you are traveling up a very large hill, the two forces will be working in the same direction instead of the opposite ones and this will result in quite the opposite effect on you. Instead of feeling weightless, you will feel very, very heavy as you are ‘sucked’ back into your seat.

One of the best ways to understand this concept is to think about when you’re at the top of the hill on a roller coaster and just as you begin your descent you let go of your harness or the safety bar. As you begin to fall, the cart that you’re in will continue to follow the path of the track while your body will continue to follow the path of motion. This results in your body moving up while the cart is moving down. Your body will actually be lifted out of its seat for a moment before is plopped back down.


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