The Test of Time

These days, you simply go to the skating center, put wheels on your feet and you're ready for fun, food, music, games and skating. You're probably thinking that rolling skates were first known to our grandparents, but roller skates are older than the United States of America (talk about some rusty wheels). Two centuries ago, a Belgian inventor named Joseph Merlin introduced the first recorded roller skate in 1760. And, what an introduction he made! He surprised everyone at a formal masquerade party at Carlisle-House in London by rolling across the floor on metal-wheeled skates while playing (badly, no doubt) a valuable violin. Because of the skate's minor performance limitations (constructed as to not allow such maneuvers as turning or stopping), Merlin ran into a large mirror, seriously damaging the violin, and inflicting grievous bodily harm. Needless to say he wasn't very interested in skating after this experience.

In the 1800's, the Dutch used wooden wheels on their ice skates so they could continue skating in the summer. Roller skates appeared on the ballet stage in 1818 in Berlin, and were also seen on the streets of Paris. In England, this form of recreation was referred to as "rinking". The skates of those times, however, only went in a straight line - they couldn't turn - and they had no breaking mechanism, so once again the pastime faded away. Roller skating finally made its way to North America in the late 1830's, with European manufacturers still dominating skate designs for several years. However, other inventors produced some roller skate models, most with in-line wheels to imitate an ice skating blade.

The first patent ever taken out on a roller skate was for an in-line skate in 1819. The patent went to Monsieur Petitbled, who claimed that people using his skates could do the same tricks as ice skaters. However, skating turns and curves with Petitbled's skate proved to be a major difficulty, if not impossible.

In 1863, James Plimpton, a businessman from Massachusetts, invented a roller skate that could turn. It was called a "rocking" skate -- the first one that really let people skate curves and turn. Plimpton opened a skating club in New York where gentlemen enjoyed showing off for the ladies by doing fancy figures, steps and turns.

Within 20 years, roller skating had become a popular pastime for men and women. Wealthy men in Newport, R.I., played "roller polo," a hockey game. Others held contests in dance and figure skating. Outdoors, men and women were racing in speed contests. The more the public saw of skating, the more they wanted to try it themselves. The roller skating industry started to prosper.

In the 1970s, there was a big improvement in roller skating. Skating floors became easier to care for. Plastic wheels that provided smoother, easier skating became the standard. The music and lighting at skating centers was also modernized. When skaters discovered how easy it was to skate with the new wheels, another big skating boom exploded. By 1977, people everywhere were skating to music.

Just before World War II, a group of skating rink owners formed an association to promote roller skating and establish good business practices for skating rinks. The Roller Skating Association (RSA) International, which was originally named the Roller Skating Rink Operators Association (RSROA), has played an active leadership role in the roller skating industry since 1937 and is going strong today. Under the guidance of the association, roller skating enjoyed steady growth through the 1940s, 50s and 60s. It became known as a family activity that provides fitness, socialization and fun.

After the boom during the disco era, roller skating industry growth slowed down through the 80s. In 1986, manufacturers began offering in-line skates to fitness enthusiasts. When manufacturers began marketing in-line skates to the public in the 90s, people became excited about roller skating again. By the mid-90s, in-line skating and in-line hockey had become two of the most popular sports in America.

Skating center owners began to utilize the new market by renting in-line skates and promoting the safety benefits of skating indoors. During this decade of change, many skating centers began to expand into entire family entertainment centers by offering a wider variety of entertainment choices. Though many skating centers now offer video and redemption games, laser tag and soft play, operators insist that roller skating will always remain the anchor of their business.

Back to top

All information on this page has been collected from the following sites:

Roller Skating Association
Roller Sports

Copyright Amy Moore 2006