Humanity's historical fascination with wearable wheels
We've been strapping stuff to our feet for the sake of speed for centuries.
Bipedal locomotion is the worst. You take a step forward and you end up standing there, legs akimbo, until you repeat the process with your other foot. And then do it again, and again, and again — back and forth, left and right, like a putz, until you reach your destination: hopefully, somewhere to sit.
Even worse, walking requires real physical effort. For our distant ancestors migrating into colder climates, slogging through mud and snow and across ice, on foot, quickly ate into their already tight caloric budgets, limiting the distances they could hunt and travel. Sure, the advent of wheels in the fourth millennia BC drastically improved our transportation options but it would be nearly another 6,000 years before we’d think to strap them to our feet.
A 2007 study by a team out of Oxford University and published in Biological Journal of the Linnean Society of London suggests that the practice of ice skating potentially emerged in Finland based on evidence from a set of bone “skates” dated to around 1800 BC. The team argued that the region’s large number of interconnected waterways, which froze over every winter, was the only place in the ancient world cold enough and flat enough to make strapping horse shins to the bottoms of our feet make caloric sense. In fact, the research team found that these skates — even if they were only a quarter as efficient and quick as modern models — offered a ten percent energy savings versus traveling the same route by foot, which added an extra 20 km total distance to travel each day.
“Ice skates were probably the first human powered locomotion tools to take the maximum advantage from the biomechanical properties of the muscular system: even when traveling at relatively high speeds,” the team argued. “The skating movement pattern required muscles to shorten slowly so that they could also develop a considerable amount of force.”
The practice also appears in western China. In March, archaeologists discovered 3,500-year-old skates made from oxen and horse bone in the country's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The dig team, led by archaeologist Ruan Qiurong of the Xinjiang Institute of Cultural Relics and Archeology, argued that their skates bear striking similarities to those found previously in Europe, suggesting a potential knowledge exchange between the two Bronze Age civilizations.
It wouldn’t be until the mid-1700s that the wheeled variety made their first appearance. Those early bespoke prototypes served in London stage shows as props to simulate ice skating winter scenes, though the identity of their creators has been lost to history. 18th century Belgian clock- and instrument-maker, John Joseph "The Ingenious Mechanic" Merlin, is credited with devising the first inline roller skate, a two-wheeled contraption he dubbed “skaites” and unveiled in the 1760s.
"One of his ingenious novelties was a pair of skaites contrived to run on wheels.” Thomas Busby's Concert Room and Orchestra Anecdotes mentioned in 1805, “when not having provided the means of retarding his velocity, or commanding its direction, he impelled himself against a mirror of more than five hundred pounds value, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces and wounded himself most severely."
By the middle of the 19th century, roller skating had migrated out of the art house scene and into the public consciousness. London’s first public roller rink, The Strand, opened in 1857 and set off a decades-long love affair with the English populace. As the burgeoning sport grew in popularity, the skates themselves quickly evolved to flatten the learning curve in taking up the activity.
Merlin’s early two-wheel inline design gave way to the classic four-wheel side-by-side (aka “quad”) build we all remember from the Disco Era. (New York City’s James Leonard Plimpton is credited with their invention in 1863.) Not only did Plimpton’s skates offer a more stable rolling platform, they were the first to incorporate “trucks,” the cushioned, pivoting axles that virtually all modern skates and skateboards use.
A dozen years later, someone finally got around to inventing proper wheel bearings. That someone being William Brown of Birmingham, England. He patented the first modern ball bearing design in 1876 and quickly followed that with a larger design for bicycles in 1877. These patents directly led to today’s ball bearing technology which we can find in everything from skateboards to semi-tractor trailers.
On modern skates, the rotating wheel and the stationary axel are separated by two hollow-disc shaped devices called bearings. These bearings are designed so that the inner and outer surfaces, which each sit in contact with the wheel and axle, can spin freely. They can do this because of a ring of small spherical metal balls sandwiched between the two plates, which roll and rotate without generating significant amounts of friction or heat (thanks to inventor Levant M. Richardson who patented the use of harder steel bearings in 1884), allowing the spinning wheels to do the same. The advent of this tech meant we no longer had to smear our axles with animal grease so that in and of itself right there is a win for humanity, saving us from a future where every indoor roller derby meet would smell of cooked pork fat.
With bearings in your wheels, it's far easier to pick up velocity and achieve a higher top speed, so rather than let the public go “full Merlin” at the local rink, the toe stop was invented in 1876. It remains a common fixture on modern quad skates as well as a select number of inlines - though those more commonly rely on heel stops instead. Despite their origins in the 18th century, The Peck & Snyder Company holds the patent for inline skates, two-wheeled ones at that, from 1900.
From the dawn of the 20th century, roller skating has been an intractable part of American culture despite generational swings in the pastime’s popularity. The sport rolled right over from the UK in the early 1900s and experienced an initial surge in popularity until the Great Depression hit in the 1930s.
To keep the interest of an economically stricken public, Chicago-based sports promoter Leo Selzer invented roller derby in 1935. Selzer had originally owned a string of movie theaters in Oregon but got into live event promotions when they became losing propositions during the economic downturn, which coincided with a national endurance competition fad (think marathon dancing and pole sitting competitions).
Derby as we know it today, grew out of Selzer’s early roller marathon idea. His inaugural Transcontinental Roller Derby in 1935 lasted several days and drew a crowd of more than 20,000 spectators. In 1937, Selzer tweaked the competition’s format to allow for more physicality between contestants and modern roller derby was born.
Derby, and skating in general, fell off during WWII, though many derby stars served abroad as USO entertainers for the troops. It saw a massive resurgence in the Post-War ‘40s and ‘50s when — just like with Rock & Roll and the Blues — white folks helped themselves to the already-established Black skating culture. Skating fell off a bit in the ‘60s but reemerged stronger than ever in the Disco Era when white folks came back around and did the same to queer culture.
At the tail end of the 1970’s the industry once again reinvented itself with the introduction of inline skates. In 1979, Scott and Brennan Olsen happened upon an old pair of inline prototypes in Minneapolis that had been developed a decade earlier by the Chicago Roller Skate Company. Competitive ice hockey players themselves, the two immediately saw its potential as an off-season training aid. By this point, inline skate designs had been patented for decades. The tech itself was known, but nobody had managed to make the wheeled boots commercially viable — until the brothers Olsen founded the Rollerblade company in 1980.
You’d think that we’d have learned from Icarus but no, in 1999, Roger Adams had the bright idea for Heelys: skates that were actually shoes but with small wheels mounted in the heels. Not to be outdone, Razor debuted the Jetts Heel Wheels — imaging just the back half of a set of quad skates but they’re driven by an electric motor that hits 10 mph for up to 30 minutes — in 2018.
And in 2022, our wheeled footwear aspirations came full circle with the release of Moonwalkers: quad skates that are worn like skates but are powered like Jetts and are designed for stepping, not pushing and gliding. Designed “to make you feel like you’re on a moving walkway,” these devices can reportedly accelerate your strides up to 250 percent and adapt to your gait as you use them.