The Evolution of Roller Skates

Early Inventions:

Not unlike the European way, early American roller skates were usually copied from various models of ice skates, featuring anywhere from 2-6 wheels, attached to a wooden "plate", and arranged in an in-line fashion to imitate ice "blades". This type of skate actually steered better than its 4-wheel conventional design counterpart, with 2 wheels in front and 2 in back.

In 1863, J.L. Plimpton, from Massachusetts, revolutionized the roller skating world by inventing the "rocking action" skate - this was the first model which could be steered or guided, and it started the first "roller skating craze" in the United States and around the world. The use of a rubber cushion between the wooden plate and the axles allowed the "truck" to "rock" when the skater shifted his/her weight to the inside or outside of the foot. Soon turns and fancy figures developed, and there has been no looking back - this was certainly the forerunner of the traditional roller skate as we know it today.

Clamp-on Skates:

About the same time that Plimpton was working on his "rocking action" invention, another Massachusetts inventor was busy getting the patent for his clamp-on system of attaching skates to a shoe or boot. E.H. Barney invented this clamp-on system for both ice and roller skates. Prior to this, skates had been attached to boots with leather straps, which were more liable to break. The clamps could be adjusted by a screw which was attached to the bottom surface of the plate, and many skates actually used a combination of clamps on the toe, and leather straps on the heel.

A two-piece, adjustable-length roller skate plate emerged in the 1890's, enabling a single pair of skates to fit people with varying shoe sizes. The use of the sliding front and rear plates to adjust to the growth of a child's foot continued well into the 1960's. Kids, ask your parents - it's likely that they had a pair of these skates with their metal wheels, or had friends who did! You can still find them in garage sales and flea markets, or maybe even in your own garage or attic! Shoe Skates: The turn of the century saw the first "shoe skates", those in which the plate was designed to be attached permanently to a "skating boot" which came slightly up the skaters calf. Professional skaters of that era used shoe skates almost exclusively, but the general public did not - clamp-on skates continued to be used in roller rinks until well into the 1950's, as shoe skates were believed to be unhealthy and unsanitary. History has shown, however, that this is the only type of traditional roller skate that we now employ, both for personal and public rink use.

Wheels:

The first known wheels for roller skates were made of wood, primarily boxwood from Turkey or Persia, and later the North American maple and oak were used. Rubber wheels were introduced on the English "Woodward" skate in 1852, and metal and fibre wheels also emerged; however, wooden wheels remained popular until about 1910. Today's wheels come in several sizes, and are made from various synthetic compounds, depending on the degree of hardness desired. In the 1960’s polyurethane became the compound of choice for skate wheels, and still is. Harder wheels tend to run faster than softer ones, while soft wheels tend to grip the floor better. They are also available in a wide range of colors so the skater can customize their skate.

Toe Stops and plugs:

Although not perfected or commercially produced until the 1950's, toe stops were seen much earlier. The first recorded toe stop was a rubber "pad" added to the front of the skate in 1876. Further ideas of a similar nature were patented in 1908, but never commercially produced. It wasn't until the 1940's that the toe stop really came of age. Toe stops, of course, perform similar functions to the "picks" on the front of ice figure skates, and they allow artistic roller skaters to jump off their toe and perform a variety of intricate fancy moves. Early roller hockey players also used toe stops to assist in their quick stops and turns, feats which are much easier on traditional roller skates than on inline skates!

Todays jamskaters use toe plugs rather than stops to allow for more movement of their skates allowing them to accomplish harder and more difficult tricks and maneuvers. These plugs are simply a very short version of the toe stop made from a long lasting polyurethane formula that wont crack or fade. They too are available in a wide range of colors.

Ball Bearings:

A major improvement to the roller skate was the addition of steel ball bearings to the wheels in 1884. This not only reduced friction, but allowed the skate wheels to turn more freely. Skating was now a less strenuous activity, and the popularity of the pastime increased considerably. The technology was further refined in 1908, with the design of the "cup and cone" device which holds the ball bearings inside a sealed casing. This arrangement allows the bearings to roll in a "bearing race", rather than just slide or rub against the wheels or axle in an unorganized fashion.

Inline Skates:

As we have seen, the first roller skates invented were really inline skates. The technology did not progress at that time, however, to allow these skates to do anything other than skate in straight lines. The traditional "quad" skate was improved to allow skaters to create deep and precise edges, and to perform jumps, spins, fancy turns, etc., that very closely resembled ice skating moves, whether in artistic, speed, or hockey.

On modern inline skates, the wheels are affixed to an assembly called the "frame", rather than a "plate" for traditional skates. Since 1990, inline skate technology has taken up the challenge of allowing skaters to perform the same types of moves as traditional roller skates. Roller skaters are now discovering the increased advantages of inline skates, specifically and most noticeably, increased speed. Manufacturers continue to experiment with different wheel heights along the frame, and different methods of aligning the wheels that will improve the skate maneuverability for Artistic disciplines, but so far they have only satisfied the Speed and Hockey players. Both the roller speed and hockey disciplines now feature inline skates almost exclusively for national and international competition.

Quad Roller Skates:

The shoe skate led to this similarly styled “quad” skate. The first appearance of what are now known as “quad” roller skates were made my Frenchman Louis Legrand to be used by the women in the production of the opera, Le Prophete. Today “quad” roller skates are made from leather and cut lower than the “shoe” skates so that the top of the boot is no higher than the ankle, sometimes slightly lower. The boots traditionally are available in black or white but can be custom dyed for an individual look.

Roller Skate Prices:
In 1906, a pair of men's roller skates cost $4.50, and extra wheels could be purchased for 30˘. The sport was so inexpensive that most people could afford to participate in it, even through the depression years. Today, skate prices vary anywhere from $50.00 to well over $1,500.00 for a complete custom set of boots, wheels, plates/frames, and bearings. Top competitors have their skates custom made/molded to fit their feet, and to suit their equipment preferences.

Copyright Amy Moore 2006