Have you spotted skaters gliding around Slessor Gardens recently? The pandemic revived interest in the sport, as deserted streets became wide-open rinks. But roller skating has been popular for longer than you might imagine, particularly in Dundee.
The world’s first quad skates were invented in 1863 by James L Plimpton: a New York City furniture dealer. Four wheels spread evenly across the foot gave skaters a greater sense of control. They were no longer attached directly to the shoe’s sole, like the preceding “skeelers” or inline skates, but to a pivot with rubber cushions. Skaters could now curve and turn by simply shifting their weight and could even skate backwards!
Closer to home in Birmingham, William Brown designed new roller skate wheels in 1876. Understanding the need to reduce friction between the fixed and moving bearing surfaces of an axle, he worked closely with local toolmaker Joseph Henry Hughes to develop a new ball bearing race. If you skate or skateboard, the wheels which carry you still use this ground-breaking design! In 1884, the invention of pin ball bearing wheels made skates lighter. With the bearings able to roll under tension, skaters could now move faster with less effort.
Improved skate design led to a boost in accessibility. A hobby previously enjoyed by only the Victorian elite, roller skating reached peak popularity in the early 1900s. Edwardians enthusiastically embraced “rinking”, happily propelling themselves around as brass bands played – an early version of a roller disco!
“Rinkomania” gripped Scotland in 1909 and venues were quickly created to meet the demand. Dundee’s own West End Rink boasted nearly 20,000 square feet of skating floor which could hold up to 1,200 skaters. It proudly billed itself as Scotland’s “finest and largest roller rink.”
The Edwardians soon moved on, distracted by movies and motor cars, forcing Dundee’s rink to close in 1911. Nevertheless, roller skating has remained a popular pastime.
The development of plastics saw the quad skate undergo another redesign in the 1960s, ushering in a new wave of popularity: one we more commonly associate with skating’s retro vibe, with modern skates often mimicking the Sixties design.
The next time you slip on a pair of skates, think of the Edwardians in their grand gowns and top hats who first fully embraced the sport in Britain, thanks to the ingenuity of Brown and Hughes’ advanced ball bearing design.