Roller Coaster Physics

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The very first “roller coasters” were created in Russia in the 1600’s, and were nothing like the typical roller coaster that comes to mind today. People rode down steep ice slides on large sleds made from either wood or ice that were slowed with sand at the end of the ride. These sleds required skill to navigate down the slides, and accidents were frequent. A Frenchman tried to cash in on the popularity of the Russian ice slides by building one in France, but the warm climate quickly ended his attempts with ice. A waxed wooden slide proved to be much more feasible, along with wooden wheeled sleds. Just as with the ice slides, the necessity of navigation skills caused many accidents, so tracks were produced to keep the sleds in line. In the 1850’s, the first shot at a vertical loop was made in France. This “Centrifuge Railway” offered a rail car that would travel through the loop with nothing keeping it there aside from its own centripetal acceleration. Government officials quickly shut the operation down after one accident. The beginning of American roller coasters was near the end of the 19th century when railway companies set up amusement parks at the end of their lines to increase business on the weekends. In 1884 the first real roller coaster in America was introduced: a gravity driven switchback train. Passengers would climb a set of stairs to board the car, which was then pushed from the station to travel down a hill and over a few bumps. At the bottom, the passengers got out and climbed another set of stairs while workers hoisted the car to the top of the second station. The passengers got back into the car and rode to the first station on a second track. Another attempt at a vertical lo... ... middle of paper ... ...changing their direction of movement from down to up. G-forces that are felt when changing direction horizontally are called lateral G’s. Lateral G’s can be converted into normal G-forces by banking turns. Roller coasters today employ clothoid loops rather than the circular loops of earlier roller coasters. This is because circular loops require greater entry speeds to complete the loop. The greater entry speeds subject passengers to greater centripetal acceleration through the lower half of the loop, therefore greater G’s. If the radius is reduced at the top of the loop, the centripetal acceleration is increased sufficiently to keep the passengers and the train from slowing too much as they move through the loop. A large radius is kept through the bottom half of the loop, thereby reducing the centripetal acceleration and the G’s acting on the passengers.
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