The invention of roller skates
Skates mounted to wooden rollers had been produced since the 1860’s (in Holland) but several innovative inventions during the late 1870’s and early 1880’s served to fuel the roller-skating fad of the 1880’s.
Roller skates existed at least as early as 1743. In that year, a stage performance in London featured actors wearing roller skates as props. In 1760, Jean Joseph Merlin invented inline skates with metal wheels.
In 1863, James Plimpton invented roller skates as we know them today. Two sets of parallel wooden wheels, one under the ball of the foot and the other set under the heel, were mounted on rubber springs. The rubber mounts allowed the wheels to pivot providing a huge improvement in maneuverability..
In 1876 a design for roller skate’s wheels was patented in England. In that same year, the toe stop was invented allowing the skater to tip the skate onto the toe to stop. These innovations made roller skates practical for everyday use and set the stage for the roller-skating fad that was about to come.
Henley improves roller skates and set the stage for the 1880’s roller skating fad
Micajah C. Henley started the first roller skate factory, Henley Bicycle Works, in Richmond in 1881 in a barn at the rear of his home at 201 North 14th Street (ironically, the Wright Brothers lived five doors down at 211 N. 14th Street). The business gradually expanded in various locations until the company finally was installed in a large brick building at North 16th Street. By the end of the year, Henley was mass producing roller skates at his Indiana factory. The skates, known as the “Chicago Skate”, sold 15,000 units per week and Henley became known as “The Roller Skate King”.
Henley continued to improve his business and expanded beyond roller skates and bicycles. Under the leadership of Henley, the workers at Henley Bicycle Works manufactured bicycles; roller skates; scooters; lawn furniture and lawn swings; iron working machinery; tools; boring, milling and screw driving machines used in wood manufacturing; gas meters; fence machines and lawn mowers
Henley continued to improve the roller skate design during the 1880’s and each improvement served to fuel another spurt in sales and inject more fervor into the growing craze. Henley skates were the first skates to feature an adjustable tension via a screw, the ancestor of the kingbolt mechanism on modern skates.
He switched to lighter, Turkish boxwood wheels that proved to be more durable than the previous wooden wheels. The wooden bottoms of the skates were replaced with a metal footplate and the straps were replaced with clamps fastened with a key (competitor products required a screwdriver to attach the skates). By 1884, roller bearings were introduced as a means to reduce friction on the turning wheels.
Henley’s skates became international best sellers. It is estimated that Henley sold millions of roller skates during the 1880’s heyday. Ultimately, interest in them waned as improvements to bicycles were made and the automobile was introduced.
In-Article Image CreditsJewels roller skates circa 1920 via Wikipedia Commons by Library of Congress with usage type - Public Domain
Abandoned Skates, burned out Skate Arena, Red Hill, 2014 via Wikipedia Commons by darkday with usage type - Creative Commons License
Pair of wooden roller skates, c 1880 via Science Musuem with usage type - Editorial use (Fair Use)
Le Skating-Polo se pratiquait alors au Moulin-Rouge 1899 via Wikipedia Commons by Jules Beau with usage type - Public Domain
Roller Skater circa 1860-1870 2nd pose via National Portrait Gallery by Mathew Brady Studio with usage type - Public Domain
Roller Skater circa 1860-1870 via National Portrait Gallery by Mathew Brady Studio with usage type - Public Domain
Press Photo taken during the Patin d'or ("Gold Skating"), 15 October 1911. via Wikipedia Commons by Rol Agency with usage type - Public Domain
Advertisement for roller skates from 1908 via Wikipedia Commons by Quiou with usage type - Public Domain
A Young man on roller skates that are pedaled, 191 via Wikipedia Commons by George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress with usage type - Public Domain
Roller skating around 1905 via Wikipedia Commons by Library of Congress with usage type - Public Domain
Featured Image CreditA Young man on roller skates that are pedaled, 191 via Wikipedia Commons by George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress with usage type - Public Domain