Roller Skating

Roller skates. Photo credit: Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York.

Roller skating is a recreational activity in which the participants wear shoes fitted with small wheels to move on outside paved surfaces and on inside roller rink floors. Competitive roller-skating sports have evolved to include speed skating, hockey, figure skating, and dancing similar to the ice-skating sports.1 Street-style competitions, known as extreme sports, are based on inventing and executing tricks while skating, and these competitions have become popular since the resurgence of the skateboard in the 1980s.2

Although the earliest attempt of inventing roller skates is thought to be by an unknown Dutchman in Holland in the 1700s, the concept of adding wheels to shoes to mimic ice skates in the summer months seems to be the catalyst for the invention. The inventor nailed wooden spools to strips of wood and attached them to shoes to make dry-land skaters, nicknamed “skeelers.” The wheels were attached in a single straight line along the bottom of the skate similar to ice skates and today’s inline skates.3

Around 1760, John Joseph Merlin, an inventor from Belgium, introduced his metal-wheeled roller skates at a formal masquerade party at Carlisle-House in London by rolling across the floor while playing a violin. Early versions of roller skates did not allow for turning or stopping very easily, and Merlin crashed into a large mirror that seriously damaged the violin and inflicted serious injury to Merlin himself.4

Several Frenchmen have been recorded in history as designers of roller skates. Shortly after Merlin introduced his version of the roller skate, ice skater Jean Garcin designed skates with a roller at the front and another at the rear. He encouraged people to practice skating by opening a gymnasium where they could skate year-round. His business failed, however, since the skates were difficult to control and people lost interest.5 In 1789, Maximilaan Lodewijk Van Lede designed his “ground skates,” but he was viewed as eccentric at the time and his skate design was not taken seriously.6

French inventor Petitbled patented his roller skate design in France in 1819. It was an inline skate design with wooden, metal, or ivory rollers attached to a wooden sole. Robert John Tyers of London patented his skate in 1823, which he called the Rolito. It was similar to Petitbled’s design, but his design called for five wheels in a single row.7 Tyers’ skates included a front brake and a heel stopper and the wheels were of different diameters, which allowed for better control while skating, although the materials available during this time didn’t allow for smooth skating. Many inventors attempted to improve upon earlier designs, and skating became popular with big cities opening special roller rinks in Europe and the United States.8

In 1863, James Plimpton of Medford, Massachusetts broke from the inline construction and designed the first practical roller skate using two parallel pairs of wheels, one set near the heel of the boot and the other near the front. The wheels were attached to the boot using springy carriages known as trucks. He called his design a “rocking” skate, which is now known as a “quad.” His roller skates allowed the skater to easily shift on the skates to smoothly navigate turns and perform other maneuvers. The quad skate became the popular style of skate for the next 80 years with the decline of the inline skate design.9

Roller skates began to be mass produced in the 1880s with Micajah C. Henley of Richmond, Indiana producing thousands of pairs a week. His skates could adjust the tension with a screw. Metal ball bearings were added to the design in 1884 by American Levant Marvin Richardson. He also added rubber cushions to restore the balance position of the trucks. These improvements helped boost the popularity of roller skating.10

Early design versions of roller skates had the skates attached to boots using leather straps. E.H. Barney invented a clamp-on system for attaching skates to shoes or boots in the mid-1860s. His clamps could be adjusted by a screw which was attached to the bottom surface of the plate. By the 1890s a two-piece, adjustable length roller skate plate allowed for a single pair of skates to fit people with varying shoe sizes by sliding the front and rear plates. These clamp-on skates became widely popular with children well into the 1960s. Shoe skates were developed in the early 1900s with the plate permanently attached to a boot that came up the skaters’ calf.

Roller skate wheels were originally made of wood. Boxwood from Turkey or Persia was popular as well as maple and oak in North America. Rubber wheels were introduced in the mid-1850s, however, wooden wheels remained popular until about 1910. The 1960s brought various synthetic compounds including polyurethane, which became the standard for skate wheels.11

Although the earliest roller skates were inline skates, the lack of sufficient technology did not allow the skates to do more than skate in straight lines. The development of quad skates allowed skaters to perform moves similar to ice skating moves. New sports were developed after the introduction of quad skates that were inspired by ice skating sports. The first recorded game of roller hockey took place in London in 1878. Speed skating on roller skates began in the 1890s; dancing was introduced in 1910; and figure skating started in 1923. Systems for judging competitions were governed by the International Federation of Roller Sports founded in 1924. One of the first roller sports to succeed on the professional level was Roller Derby. When founded in 1935, it was originally set up as an endurance competition with teams circling a banked rink. It was soon restructured as a contact sport that became a hugely popular spectator sport.12

The first manufactured modern inline skates were developed by two American hockey players, Scott and Brennan Olsen. In 1980 they were looking for a way to modify a hockey boot to allow them to train year round. When they discovered an early version of a roller skate, they decided to improve on the design with new technologies available. Their first design had steel frames and skateboard rubber wheels that were riveted to hockey boots. Although their prototype was clunky and heavy, the basic design prevailed. Rollerblade, Inc. was created to produce the skates, and soon hockey players as well as Nordic and alpine skiers began to use inline skates in their training. Quickly interest spread to non-athletes who wanted to use the skates for their own enjoyment.

The company improved on their design as other companies began to compete with their own inline skates. The modern inline skate has polyurethane wheels aligned on a truck made out of plastic or light aluminum. The truck is attached to a molded boot and holds the wheels in place with bolts. A braking system provides greater speed control.13

Roller sports were greatly impacted with the new generation of inline skates developed in the 1980s. Speed skating and a new variety of roller hockey quickly adopted the new skates. Competitions that were inspired by skateboarding competitions evolved. These aggressive roller-skating sports include street style, which involves riding through city settings performing tricks off stairs, rails, and other structures, and vertical style, which involves aerial acrobatics performed off ramps or in a half-pipe structure similar to those found in skateboard parks.14 When inline skate manufacturers began to market their products to the public in the 1990s, people became excited about roller skating, and it became one of the most popular sports in America in the mid-1990s.15

Children can learn to roller skate at a young age. Traditional quad roller skates give children a sense of standing in a normal position and are typically a better choice for young beginners. Because children usually have less strength in their ankles and legs, inline skates affect young children’s balance making it difficult for them to stand upright and steady at first.16

To propel themselves forward on skates, children start from a skating stance, which is simply putting their feet in a V shape, and then pushing one foot out from their other leg and then continuing with the other leg. Stopping is accomplished by placing the ball on the front of their skate on the ground until coming to a complete stop. Skating backward and other skating tricks can be mastered once the children are proficient at forward skating and stopping. The same moves are accomplished on inline skates and can be attempted once the children can properly balance on them.17

For safety purposes, skaters are advised to wear helmets, wrist guards, knee pads, and elbow pads. Skating helps develop balance and strength as well as judgment and skill in avoiding obstacles.18

Roller skates were inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999.19

  • 1. “Roller-skating.” Britannica Online Encyclopedia. < > 18 Sep. 2017.
  • 2. Carlisle, Rodney P. editor. “Skating.” Encyclopedia of Play in Today’s Society. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc. 2009. p. 640.
  • 3. Bellis, Mary. “The History of Roller Skates.” ThoughtCo. < > 18 Sep. 2017.
  • 4. Moore, Amy. “The Test of Time.” The History and Evolution of Roller Skating. < > 18 Sep. 2017.
  • 5. Pincus, Marilyn. “The history of Roller Skating.” Christian Science Monitor. < > 19 Sep. 2017.
  • 6. Chartier, Alexandre. “This History of Skating from 1760 till Today.” OLS roller-skating magazine. < > 19 Sep. 2017.
  • 7. Op. cit., Bellis.
  • 8. Op. cit., Chartier.
  • 9. Op. cit., “Roller-skating.”
  • 10. Op. cit., Chartier.
  • 11. Moore, Amy. “The Evolution of Roller Skates.” The History and Evolution of Roller Skating. < > 19 Sep. 2017.
  • 12. Op. cit., “Roller-skating.”
  • 13. Dorman, Evelyn S. “In-Line Skates.” < > 19 Sep. 2017.
  • 14. Op. cit., “Roller-skating.”
  • 15. Op. cit., Moore, Amy. “The Test of Time.”
  • 16. Quick, Carly. “Parents’ Guide to Buying Roller Skates for Children – 2017.” Devaskation. < > 19 Sep. 2017.
  • 17. “Teach Your Child How to Roller Skate.” Teach Kids How. < > 19 Sep. 2017.
  • 18. “Skating/Skateboarding Safety for Little Kids.” Safe Kids Worldwide. < > 19 Sep. 2017.
  • 19. “Roller Skates.” National Toy Hall of Fame. < > 19 Sep. 2017.