Old School (Literally) Inline Skates

19th Century Inline SkateUsually when people think of skating, they automatically think of roller skates. They think about those large rubber wheels arrayed on two columns and two rows in a rough rectangle at the bottom of their foot. They look at the footwear that is usually made of hard or soft leather, and of course they think about roller skate laces. This is pretty straightforward and very common. This is how most people imagine skates look like.

Now, when you tell them to imagine something more up to date, they usually would think of inline skates. Inline skates, of course, involve skate wheels that are very thin, very small and aligned in one line. They kind of mimic ice skates. So on both of your feet, you just have one line of wheels. Again, pretty straightforward.

What if I told you that the inline skate design, as seemingly modern and revolutionary as it may be, actually dates from the early part of the 19th century? No, I’m not crazy. This is absolutely true.

In fact, in 1823, an inventor named Robert John Tyers, based in London, England, took out a patent on a device called a Rolito. This skating device, or skating footwear, had 5 wheels, which were arranged in a single row. This row is at the bottom of a boot or a shoe. Sounds familiar, right? Sounds like the typical rollerblade boot.

Well, interestingly enough, upon closer inspection, this device wasn’t very practical because it seems like he was just trying to copy an ice skate and the wheels were too thick. You would be better off using a traditional roller skate design because the traditional roller skate or quad skate is more stable.

Stability is crucial when it comes to skating. As a skater, you probably already know this. You probably would feel that it’s a statement not worth saying. Let’s just make that clear. Stability is crucial and the great thing about the quad skate is that its design makes it very easy to stand up and start skating. It is definitely much easier to get used to than the typical rollerblade set up.

The big downside to roller skates is its higher center of gravity. Now, if you are going to be skating on totally flat surfaces with absolutely no imperfections, you are going to have a grand old time skating on those flawless surfaces.

Now, unfortunately, we don’t live in a flawless or ideal world. Not by a long shot. There are going to be a lot of cracks on the road. There are going to be a lot of debris there. There are going to be lots of small stones or split gravel or all sorts of road imperfections.

Now if you’re using roller skates, it’s very easy to tip over because its wheels have a higher form. They have a higher base and when there are obstructions to the base, the base takes a harder hit and your foot takes the hit and it transfers the energy to your center of gravity.

Now, if you’re going forward at a high rate of speed, it’s very easy for your center of gravity to get thrown off and you start tipping, and you’re in for a world of hurt. Again, this is not rocket science, this is not brain surgery, you already know this, but I just need to make it clear in the context of roller skate designs.

Shocking Design

This is why when Robert John Tyers came out with the Rolito, a lot of people were intrigued. It’s a very interesting skate because it just mirrored how ice skates are designed. This is actually one of the first skates patented, and it really is just a wheeled adaptation of the ice skate blade. The ice skate blade, of course, is straight so Mr. Tyers put the thick wheels in one straight line.

The problem with this invention, of course, was that it wasn’t very stable. While the wheels are fairly thick, their orientation and the way people are moving forward, plus the fact that there is no brake, caused a lot of problems and it did not go over well. Things only changed fundamentally in 1863 when James Leonard Plimpton invented the quad skates. This has really revolutionized skating.

Now, don’t get me wrong, people were skating using the Rolito and other devices, but it wasn’t really big because it was kind of awkward. It was clumsy, it didn’t allow people to move in a way that they wanted to move. But still, it gained popularity to such an extent that there were public skating rinks being opened in certain parts of the United States as well as in England.

Things really changed in 1863 with Mr. Plimpton’s invention. He invented the quad skates, which provided a tremendous amount of stability and, if you knew what you were doing, you can move really quickly. And from this point on, skating really caught on all over the place and skating became a world wide sporting phenomenon.

If you haven’t seen 19th century inline skates, you need to check out the Rolito. It’s definitely gone a long way. The big design innovation is to use very thin, small wheels, position them in a straight track, and extend the track. Using this winning design, you get a tremendous amount of speed and, interestingly enough, a lot of control.

You may be going at a high rate of speed, but you’re still in control. This enables you to make tight turns using rollerblades. This is not as easy to execute with roller skates. If you’re on quad skates, it’s not easy to make sharp quick turns or to stop quickly. This is why inline skates are used for street hockey. That’s how quick, fast and efficient they are.
If there is anything the history of rollerblading equipment teaches us, it is the simple yet powerful lesson that form must follow function. The Rolito might have been awesome looking when it came out but it wasn’t all that practical. It was only when the quad skates came out that skating really started coming to its own.