Clack. Clack. Clack.
A familiar sound to any who have enjoyed one of America’s favorite theme park rides. It’s the sound a roller coaster makes as it climbs that long hill before the glee filled screams take over on its steep descent down the other side.
The roller coaster was first invented as ice slides in the 1600’s in Russia. Then the first wheels were added either in the late 1700’s in Russia or the early 1800’s in France. (There is some historical dispute since the claims of the Russian version in 1784 cannot be fully verified.) But there is no dispute as to who had the greatest influence on the roller coaster as it exists today.
Robert Cartmell called John Miller the “most innovative and influential figure in the history of amusement parks.” Born in Homewood, IL in 1872 August Mueller, he became professionally known as John A. Miller. At 19, he became chief engineer for LaMarcus Thompson, who himself had built the first American roller coaster at Coney Island, NY. Miller was considered the Thomas Edison of the roller coaster.
The pairing of Miller and Thompson was likened to Wilbur and Orville Wright. Miller also did freelancing work for the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, had a partnership with Harry Baker from 1920 to 1923 and worked for the Dayton Fun House and Riding Device Manufacturing Company, which later became the National Amusement Device Corporation.
Miller was quite prolific in designing and building coasters. He built as many in one year as other designers might do in a lifetime. In 1920, during his partnership with Harry Baker, he designed and built 15 coasters in cities across the US. (A partial list in a catalogue from his pairing with Harry Baker lists 42 coasters built between 1920 and 1923.) Though very productive, very few of his personally designed coasters remain. The Jack Rabbit coaster at Kennywood Park in Pittsburgh, PA miller designed with Harry Baker is arguably the finest example of his work still in operation. The Jack Rabbit is a ravine coaster and it was built with Miller’s newly designed safety system wheels under the track.
World renowned as an incredible inventor for his designs that created greater and greater thrills, Miller was even more famous for his intensive desire to make the roller coaster safer. He was always showing how a ride could be built higher, steeper and faster, but always safer. Miller held over 100 patents in the area of coaster safety, including many still in use today.
It was Miller that invented the safety chain dog in 1910, which is the cause of the clanking sound heard when the train is pulled up the hill. His ‘underfriction wheels’ lock cars to the track, eliminating cars from leaping from the tracks while achieving greater speeds. This invention allows many of today’s gravity-defying designs. This latter invention is accepted as the single most important factor in the Golden Age of Roller Coasters, lasting from the early 1920’s until the Great Depression. During that time there were over 3500 coasters worldwide, with 1500 in North America alone.
John Miller’s safety designs not only allowed coasters to go faster and down steeper hills, but his Aero-Plane and Spiral Dips inventions, which permitted steep ascents and descents on sharp curves as well as straight-aways, making it more practical to design coasters on a much smaller area than was possible with older types of construction.
Miller’s renowned designs and ingenious inventions made him world famous, yet little was known of the man himself at the time. Often he worked in a small office in his home in Homewood, IL, a suburb of Chicago. An associate of Miller’s once quipped that notoriety wasn’t something John sought out. “We were just busy putting up rides, and Miller didn’t give a damn about such things.”
Among some of Miller’s more unusual designs were The Dip-Lo-Docus (designed in 1923 and featured at parks such as Olympic Park in New Jersey), featuring revolving three-seater cars, and the Flying Turns (designed in 1929 and constructed for the 1933-34 Chicago World’s Fair) which consisted of cars with swiveling rubber wheels that zoomed through a half-cylindrical chute like a toboggan. The latter ride is currently seeing a resurgence and is the new attraction at Knoebel’s Amusement Park in Elysburg, PA just north of Harrisburg.
John Miller was married sometime in 1905 and his wife traveled with him until 1915, when the couple bought a home in Homewood, IL. After that, she would travel with him from time to time. In keeping with his quite private life, little is known about Mrs. Miller, short of a mention in his obituary. At the time of his death, they had been married for 36 years and apparently had no children.
While working in Houston, TX, building a new coaster for the city, John August Miller died of an apparent heart attack on June 24, 1941 at the age of 66, and is buried in Homewood Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Homewood, IL.
Miller left behind a legacy that includes some of the most thrilling amusement rides known to man, due, in no small part, to his enthusiastic insistence on safety. He not only designed such coaster related devices as the car bar lock (1912), the brake mechanism (1912), the I- (1924) and T- (1925) Beam Track Structure, but he also invented the Dome Truss Structure (1922) commonly in use by amusement park buildings.
The Incredible Scream Machine: A History of the Roller Coaster. By Robert Cartmell, Fairview Park, Ohio: Amusement Park Books, Inc., 1987