The History of Skating from 1760 till Today
Did the first skates have inline wheels or trucks?
Dutch Hans Brickner would have been the first to create skates in fixing wooden wheels under his shoes at the beginning of the 18th C. We lack archives and documents to determine for sure who the inventor of roller skates was. A few references to the practice of skating, dating back from 1743 in London (GB), can be found but unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be any trace left of the inventor. Sam Nieswizski explained during an interview that nobody knew exactly if the wheels of those skates were inline or not. English documents mention a pair of inline skates with metal wheels. The first inline skates were inspired in large part by ice skates.
John Joseph Merlin (1760)
'One may believe that roller skates are a recent invention, but in reality, the very first models were very different from the skates we know today and were created over two centuries ago.'
The invention of roller skates (1) is attributed to John Joseph Merlin (1735-1803) from Huy, Belgium. Around 1760, he had the idea of adapting ice skating to firm ground in fixing metal rollers on a wooden plate. For the record (2), during a high-class social evening in London the inventor crashed into a value mirror and it almost cost him his life. Maybe was it the first fall in the history of roller skating...
Tyers’ skates with inline wheels
As soon as the beginnings of skating, and particularly with the inline wheeled skates by Tyers, named 'Rolito' and created in 1823, frames had uncanny similarities with today's models: 5 inline wheels just like the current speed skates used in competition, a front brake and a heel stopper.
Let's also mention that the wheels were of different diameters, which is the current principle of rocker set-ups (3).
Just as seen in the chapter on current innovations, this concept was re-used for each modality of practice with different concerns. At that time already, it had been understood that the setting up the wheels in a semi-circle made the skates more maneuverable and made it easier to take curves. Last but not least, let's note that the braking system that was implemented at the time at the back of the frame tends to remind us of our current rubber brakes.
Technological evolutions throughout the 18th Century
The idea gained ground in France with Maximiliaan Lodewijk Van Lede and his ‘ground skates’ in 1789. He was seen as an eccentric at the time.
In 1819, Petibled was the first to file a patent for skates with three inline wheels and a stopper to brake. Those skates could be made of wood or metal. The brake, called ‘arrêtoir’ (stopper) was nothing but a screw fixed at the heel. The plate was fixed to the shoe with straps, just like the good old traditional skates of our childhood.
Many inventors copied Petibled, including Spence, Tyers, Lohner, Garcin and Legrand. In the USA and in Europe, skating became very trendy and big cities equipped themselves with special roller rinks.
The materials of the second half of the 19th Century didn’t allow the manufacturing of performant wheels: Brass, wood or horn were commonly used but the grip they provided was precarious and the rolling was all the more bad as grounds were far from being as smooth as they are today. Garmin suggested the use of ivory to make wheels, but we don’t know if they were ever produced. Roller skates kept on undergoing transformations, renewing and evolving with the different trends.
1863 : Birth of traditional skates and decline of inline skates
Skates with mobile trucks (also called ‘quad’ or ‘traditional’ skates) made their first appearance in 1963, at the instigation of the American James Leonard Plimpton. He called his invention the ‘rocking skate’.
That skate was made of 4 wooden wheels mounted on two trucks. Leaning your feet to the side would make the trucks converge and, consequently, make you turn. The only problem of the system was the premature wear of the wheels on the trucks. He then developed a lubrication system: Made of an endless screw, the system would limit the wear of the wheels in directing the grease onto the friction points. Plimpton made a fortune out of his invention.
His invention worked so well that many roller rinks saw the light around the world. One of the firsts to open was located in New York, next to his shop. There was another one in Newport, Rhode Island and a third one in London with the Crystal Palace in 1895. There were up to 60 roller rinks in London and its surrounding areas in 1876, according to ‘RollerMania’.‘Quads’ were about to dominate the market of skating for more than a century.
A 1876 traditional skate, the oldest piece of Sam Nieswizski’s personal collection >>
From then on, inline skates were going to decline. Being more handy and holding the ground better than inline skates, traditional skates allowed to try more daring tricks. However inline skates were not totally forgotten. Indeed they were still lighter, cheaper and needed less maintenance and adjustment.
Ball bearings: The turning point
In 1852, the English Joseph Gidman filed a patent for roller skates equipped with ball bearings. 30 more years were needed before the first roller skates equipped with ball bearings saw the light. As mentioned by Sam Nieswizski, ball bearings were not actually invented at that time. Indeed, he recalled that in the 15th C., Leonardo Da Vinci had already created that mechanical system. It had stayed at the invention stage because the technical means of the time we not enough to produce those bearings. Before him, close concepts would have been tested in prehistoric times!
The website of SKF Company (4) says that a basic form of bearing already existed at the time of the Roman Empire. A form of ball bearing would have been discovered in a ship wreck dating back from the reign of Emperor Caligula, in 40 BC. It is yet interesting to note that for both SKF and Sam Nieswizski, the real bearing breakthrough only happened in the 19th C., at the time of the Industrial Revolution.
In 1876, William Brown (Birmingham, Great Britain), together with Joseph Henry Hughes, made improvements to the mechanical system of bearings: They created a bearing both sides of which could move independently of each other. This concept will be reused later in cycling and skateboarding.
Still in 1876, traditional skates were equipped with stoppers for the first time.
In 1877, a roller hall was built in Brussels, Belgium, rue Veydt: The Royal Skating.
Skating in the era of industrial production
Roller skates were mass produced as soon as the 1880's. At that time, Micajah C. Henley (Richmond, Indian) would made thousands of pairs each week! The Henleys were the first roller skates the tension of which could be adjusted with a screw — the forerunner of the Kingbolt mechanism of modern quads.
In 1884, the American Levant Marvin Richardson adopted the solution of metal ball bearing. Skaters could gain speed with less efforts. That period was marked by the beginning of mass production. Richardson improved Plimpton's model in adding rubber cushions to restore the balance position of the trucks. In so doing, traditional skates almost reached their dominant design, very similar to what they are today.
In 1900, Peck & Snyder Company filed a patent for roller skates with two inline wheels (according to the Museum of Skating of Lincoln, Nebraska).
In 1907, the Chicago Coliseum opened a public rink that hosted 7000 people on its opening day.
Also in 1907, Sven Wingqvist, a brilliant Swedish engineer, showed to the world the first bearings the balls of which aligned by themselves. They became a commercial reality that very same year.
The end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th C. are marked by the creation of cycle skates, with a design close to that of quad skates or inline skates, in response to the need to skate on all types of surfaces. Already presaging contemporary off-road skates, they had rubber wheels or were equipped with tires!
A recent revolution: Polyurethane wheels
The following period was relatively calm. Manufacturers would offer cheap mass-produced models equipped with metal wheels and low-quality bearings.
Only competitors had performant models with wooden wheels (boxwood), that had a better rolling but were also more fragile. Boxwood wheels would wear off so fast that skaters had to change them in the middle of long distance races!
Rubber was sometimes used, especially in France in 1912. Skate models with tires and air tubes started to appear in 1987.
Plastic wheels would have been used in 1980 in URSS. Polyurethane wheels saw the light in 1979. They have many advantages for skaters as well as for manufacturers. One may say that this innovation was what revived the practice of inline skating; First in the USA in the 80's, then spreading to Europe from the early 90's.
Let's also note that the lines of the model below are very similar to those of current speed skates — a low-cut shoe made of leather, mounted on a long metal frame with polyurethane wheels. Since then the number of wheels varied, from 2 to 6 even 8 wheels (not inline). The longest inline skate had 7 wheels.
Manufacturers started producing inline skates, also called 'Rollerblades' from the name of the main manufacturer (who by the way deeply regrets the name popularization, dangerous for the brand). Faster, they seduced the youth of the 80's-90's.
Skating was proposed for the first time as an exhibition at the Olympic Games of Barcelona in 1992. Traditional skating was put under the limelight with Rink Hockey. Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the International Olympic Committee back then, was also the manager of rink hockey in Spain.
The birth of Rollerblade and the boom of inline skating
The first brand to have filed an inline skates patent in 1960 would be 'Chicago' from the USA. That model would have inspired the two creators of the Rollerblade brand, Scott and Brenan Olson. The two American hockey players quickly understood the advantage of inline skates to practice skating off season.
They would have redesigned and mounted their first pairs in the garage at their parents' place, after having discovered that old inline skate in a shop in 1979, using more modern materials and a ice hockey shoe.
A few years later, after a promotional campaign, the product invaded the streets of Minnesota. Skiers joined the movement to train in the summertime. Rollerblade Inc. was born.
The Olson Brothers were spotted during a show in Las Vegas by the Italian owner of Roces, who then bought Rollerblade. He would part with the brand later to launch his own inline skate collections under the name of Roces.
Rollerblade also took off in 1985 when Robert Naegele bought the company. Rollerblade was successively a branch of the Benetton Sports System Group and then of Tecnica in 2003.
The brand developed so well that it became a generic term. Now you say that you are going to buy 'Rollerblades' just as if you were talking about your 'Hoover' instead of your vacuum cleaner. The manufacturer is deeply concerned by the situation, fearing a loss of recognition and identity in favor of the competition.
In the 80's and 90's, the best selling models had hard plastic shells, just like ski boots. It was only in 1995 that K2 launched the first soft boot, a model with a structure combining plastic and textile. The other brands quickly followed the move. Throughout the years, rigid shells were going to be specifically used for street / aggressive skating.
Benetton Sport System, the owner of Rollerblade, estimated its share of the world market at nearly 50% in 1998. This share would have decreased in the following years, with the increase of interest for inline skating (5) of many brands and great sports item manufacturers. A few rising brands such as Salomon were successful on the European market but have disappeared since then. Rollerblade still seems to be the world leader today.
A pioneer in the industry of inline skating
Rollerblade was first based in Minneapolis. The brand says to have created one of the fastest growing sports in the world with inline skating.
The world leading brand says to have contributed to change the vision of the sport.
'Originally perceived as an off-season training device for hockey players, Rollerblade® pioneered the inline skating boom by transforming inline skates to a widely accepted "lifestyle" product just about anyone can use.' (6)
Today this sport is practiced by a wide variety of people, from professional athletes to children. The market grew in the early 80's but it wasn't much developed yet and still quite geographically limited. Only after the selling of Rollerblade Company in 1984 did strategical marketing efforts place inline skating as a new sport. For example, a shop opened in Venice Beach, California, the skate 'Mecca'.
In the 90's and early 2000's, nearly the 3/4 of Rollerblade skates were produced in the Nordica factory of Trevigano, Italy. This region was one of the main production locations of inline skating since most big brands set up their factories there. At the beginning of the 2000's, skating brands relocated their production in Asia, particularly in China.
In 1994, Rollerblade was the leader of the French market with 60.000 pairs sold. The brand made 36% of the turnover of the BSS Group in 1995. In 1988, the brand would have closed some of their branches (including Germany) to concentrate its activity on Italy and review its strategies (7). Today, Rollerblade belongs to the Nordica Group and represents about 3% of its turnover.
Evolution of Rollerblade’s inline skates sales between 1993 and 1997
Sales (in units)
Evolution (in units)
Evolution in %
Source: Roller Saga n°10 page 10 - May 1998
Rollerblade opening the way with its innovations
Year after year, Rollerblade used the ressources of various industries to improve their products. Let's note for example the use of polyurethane for boots and wheels, metal frames and plates, double row ball bearings and heel brakes. Later, the company designed the first wheels with hubs for more speed. Another major innovation was that of composite frames, which offered real weight and comfort gain to the skates.
In 1994, Rollerblade introduced the 'Active Brake Technology®' system (ABT®) on their products, a heel brake activated by the instinctive straightening up of the skater. It is particularly suitable for beginners and offers good speed control.
The brand filed over 200 patents in relation with inline skating. The 1999 Rollerblade collection offered a variety of over 30 models for men, women and kids, designed for fitness, fun and competition.
A model with rigid ankle was specially designed for 6-12 kids. Rollerblade says that they are concerned about testing existing products in order to offer new collections that meet with the needs of beginners and experienced skaters.
In 2015, no less than 49 different models of skates were to be found in the Rollerblade catalog!
The different brands competing with Rollerblade brought many innovations that allowed a strong segmentation of the market. Today, a plurality of skate models that meet the needs of very specific practices is available on the market.
One may legitimately wonder if all the existing products come from one model supporting one use or if the market was segmented as soon as the beginning of mass production.
(1) Source: Encyclopédie Universalis Multimédia 1997
(2) Source: Supplement of the Express Magazine - issue n°2438, April 1998
(3) Rocker set-up: a specific set-up of the wheels on a frame
(4) Internet website: www.skf.com - SKF is a company manufacturing bearings for different industrial sector, including inline skating.
(5) We started a study on the evolution of the world market since the early 90's for a previous marketing research.
(6) Rollerblade website 'about us' www.rollerblade.com/usa/about-us/
(7) Source: Roller Saga Magazine - issue n°10, May 1998
LinksText : Alfathor
Translation: Chloe Seyres
Pictures : OLS, all rights reserved