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Roller Skates: 1759, Belgium

The first practical pair of roller skates, called skaites, was built by a Belgian musical instrument maker, Joseph Merlin, in 1759. Each skate had only two wheels, aligned along the center of the shoe, and Merlin constructed the skates in order to make a spectacular entrance at a costume party in the Belgian city of Huy. The crude design, which strapped to the feet, was based on the ice skates of Merlin’s day.

A master violinist, Merlin intended to roll into the party while playing his violin. Unfortunately, he had neglected to master the fine art of stopping on skates, and he crashed into a full length mirror, breaking it and his violin; his entrance was indeed spectacular. Merlin’s accident underscored the technological drawback of all early “wheeled feet”: starting and stopping were not so much decisions of the skater as of the skates. The crude wheels, without ball bearings, resisted turning, then abruptly turned and resisted stopping, then jammed to a halt on their own.

When, in the 1850s, skate technology improved, roller skating began to compete in popularity with ice skating, though marginally at first German composer Jakob Liebmann Beer, who achieved fame as Giacomo Meyerbeer, wrote a mid-1800s opera, Le Prophete, which contained an ice skating scene that was performed on the improved roller skates. The opera was a great success in its own right, but many people attended to witness the much publicized roller skating scene. And an Italian ballet of the period, Winter Pastimes: or The Skaters, choreographed and composed by Paul Taglioni, also became famous for its ice-skating episode executed on roller skates.

Interestingly, during these decades, roller skates were seldom depicted on stage as an entertainment themselves, but mimicked ice skating. Part of the reason was that until 1884, when ball-bearing wheels were introduced, roller skating was difficult, dangerous, and not a widely popular pastime.

From: Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things By: Charles Panati


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