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All about roller skates

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A pair of roller skates within the permanent collection of The Children's Museum of Indianapolis. Roller skates were invented in the 1800s, but they didn’t really become popular until the 20th century. Skates like these fit on over shoes and were adjustable.

Roller skates are devices worn on the feet to enable the wearer to roll along on wheels. The first roller skate was effectively an ice skate with wheels where the blade goes. Later the "quad" style of roller skate became more popular consisting of four wheels arranged in the same configuration as a typical car.


Skates at Paul Bunyan Land, Brainerd, Minnesota

Woman wearing modern speed skates

Girl on roller skates, 1921

Young woman roller skating beside a group of women's suffragists at the White House, 1917

The first patented roller skate was introduced in 1760 by Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin. His roller skate wasn't much more than an ice skate with wheels where the blade goes, (a style we would call inlines today). They were hard to steer and hard to stop because they didn't have brakes and as such were not very popular. The initial "test pilot" of the first prototype of the skate was in the city of Huy, which had a party with Merlin playing the violin.

In 1863, James Plimpton from Massachusetts invented the "rocking" skate and used a four wheel configuration for stability, and independent axles that turned by pressing to one side of the skate or the other when the skater wants to create an edge. This was a vast improvement on the Merlin design that was easier to use and drove the huge popularity roller skating through the 1930s. The Plimpton skate is still used today.

Eventually, roller skating evolved from just a pastime to a competitive sport; speed skating, racing on skates, and figure skating, very similar to what you see in the Olympics on ice. In the mid 1990s roller hockey, played with a ball rather than a puck, became so popular that it even made an appearance in the Olympics in 1992. The National Sporting Goods Association statistics showed, from a 1999 study, that 2.5 million people played roller hockey. Roller Skating was considered for the 2012 Summer Olympics  but has never become an Olympic event. Other roller skating sports include jam skating and roller derby. Roller skating popularity exploded during the disco era but tapered off in the 80s and 90s.

The Roller Skating Rink Operators Association was developed in the U.S in 1937. It is currently named the Roller Skating Association. The association promotes roller skating and offers classes to the public, aiming to educate the population about roller skating. The current President is Bobby Pender. The Roller Skating Association headquarters is located in Indianapolis.


The Roller Skating Association’s web page offers some health benefits of roller skating. Some of these benefits include providing a complete aerobic workout and burning 350 calories per hour while skating 6 miles per hour or 600 calories while skating 10 miles per hour. In the 1980s rollerskating as aerobic exercise flourished briefly. Marnie Bjornson's 1988 exercise video "Roller Burn" combined rollerskating with Tai Chi moves. Roller skating is equivalent to jogging in terms of health benefits. The American Heart Association recommends roller skating as an aerobic fitness sport.


Roller skating has become such a popular pastime that there are museums dedicated to its history. The National Museum of Roller Skating in Lincoln, Nebraska claims to own the largest collection of historical roller skates in the world, together with pictures, medals, films, costumes, etc. that have significance. It also hosts a large library of roller skating books and has video clips of highlights from roller skating competitions. Donations of anything that reflects “the history of roller skating on a local, regional, national, and international level” are encouraged.


The song "Brand New Key" by Melanie Safka features the lyrics "I got a brand new pair of roller skates".

For the opening verse in "Hollywood" from The Runaways second album Queens of Noise, Joan Jett sings, "Each night alone I dream that I'm a rebel roller queen".

Vance, the leader of the "The Punks", a gang from the cult 1979 movie "The Warriors", is recognizable for wearing the roller skates.

In Madonna's "Sorry" video she uses roller skates. A more recent example is in Jessica Simpson's music video for her song “A Public Affair”, starring Simpson, Christina Applegate, Eva Longoria, Christina Milian, Andy Dick and Ryan Seacrest, and a skating dance crew named Breaksk8.

In 2003, the band known as The Penfifteen Club released their single "Ms.Hilton" which has a reference to roller skates in the song "roller skates on a social butterfly".

Miss'ile, founded in 2005 and directed by choreographer/performer Cecile Klaus, is a female skate dance company that has appeared at the Paris Slalom World Cup and in various shows, commercials and music videos. Based in France, the Miss'iles have a sport team for inline skate competitions (downhill, speed, skate cross, cones) and an artistic team for inline/quad skate shows (cones, high-jump, skate dance).

The 2009 film Whip It stars Ellen Page as a teenager who rebels against her mother's wish for her to be a beauty queen in favour of joining a roller derby team.

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