The Father of the Modern Roller Skating

In January of 1863, James Leonard Plimpton patented his four wheeled turning roller skate. The mechanism had a pivoting action dampened by a rubber cushion which permitted the roller skate to curve, simply by leaning weight in the desired direction of travel. At last a roller skater could move around the floor as if one were on ice. One foot and two foot turns could be done easily and momentum could be built up by an out and in scissors movement, a difficult feat to do on former roller skate models.

Plimpton was in the furniture business in New York City at this time and he built a roller skating floor in his offices. He leased out skates rather than selling them, as he was promoting skating to the clergy and city officials as a supervised sport for young ladies and gentlemen--not for the masses. He founded the New York Roller Skating Association (NYRSA) to promote the sport of roller skating.

The invention of the Plimpton action skate quickly revolutionized the roller skate industry. Although Plimpton became wealthy from his invention, there were so many infringements on his patents (as many as three hundred), that his lawyer made up form letters to warn offenders.

After over 100 years of advancement, the Plimpton action skate, wood skating floors, class lessons, and proficiency tests all testify to one of history’s greatest skating innovators, James L. Plimpton.

In 1876 the famous English novelist, Charles Dickens, then a reporter for the London Newspaper, wrote a story on roller skating. He credits Plimpton with inventing the wood skating floor, “narrow strips of wood, so sawn from the timber and placed on the floor that the grain of the wood in none of the strips is parallel to the surface of the floor.” DIckens described the Plimpton skate as the “rocking skate,” others called it the “circular gliding skate.”

In the summer of 1866, the NYRSA leased the Atlantic House, a fashionable resort hotel in Newport, Rhode Island, and converted the dining room into the skating area. Suites were leased to NYRSA members and their guests. This was the first roller skating rink open to the public in the United States.

In 1875, Plimpton visited England and testified in court about his role in the process of the development of the roller skates. He stated, “I have been interested or engaged more or less for the past thirty years, in mechanical pursuits and I consider that during that period I have acquired a fair theoretical and practical knowledge of mechanics. About the year 1861, being in bad health, I was advised to practice ice skating and I derived much benefit from it, and when I could not practice upon the ice, I resorted to roller skating and I purchased a pair of roller skates of the most improved construction on sale in New York. I found it almost impossible to force the skate to the right or left. From the time of ascertaining this, which happened about the month of March 1862, to the middle of September or October in the same year, I made various experiments, and step by step I succeeded in making a roller skate which I could control in curves by moving the axis of the rollers  out of parallel by rocking the footstack laterally.” And thus the origin of thus was the origin of the Plimpton roller skate.

You sill see this letter on the left side wall.

On the right side wall is an image of a rink.

On the bottom shelf you will see a Plimpton skate to the left. Plimpton’s original 1863 model shows solid triangular shaped pieces on the truck assembly with round rubber cushions placed between the triangles. A wood plate and a pivot rod allowed the wheels to turn. There were adjustable toe and heel clamps to fasten the shoe to the skate.

The improved James L. Plimpton parlor skate introduced in 1866 combines rollers and an ice blade. The silver brass swans attached at the front show what the skate would need to become an ice skate and the wheels in the rear demonstrate the roller skate idea. Plimpton suggested four edges as opposed to the traditional one blade (swan) so that the skate could be turned or reversed as the edges become his swan skate is on the shelf as well.

In the middle of the two aformentioned skates  you will see an 1874 Plimpton skate. This Plimpton skate was patented in 1874 and has the remains of emery on the wheels which helped prevent the skate from slipping on the skating floor. The tag was Plimpton’s own that he used to identify skates in his collection.

In the late 1860’s, Plimpton instituted the class instructional system which is still in use today in some regards. The first “proficiency” medals for roller skating were designed by Plimpton, and awarded in his rinks throughout the world. The Plimpton medal was cast in bronze and was awarded to individuals who were advancing the sport of roller skating.

To the right you will notice a Plimpton skate Number 10, which was used in court hearings to demonstrate how he developed his invention. The skate was an experimental forerunner of the patented 1863 model.

Lastly you will see another Plimpton model skate. This skate was produced by Plimpton sometime between his first patent model skate in 1863 and his improved patent model in 1866.

National Museum of Roller Skating Audio Tour - Museum Proper
  1. The First Roller Skates
  2. Patented Roller Skates
  3. The Father of the Modern Roller Skating
  4. Rinking
  5. The "Newest" Craze
  6. The Disco Era
  7. Pop Culture! Skating in Lines: Roller Skating and Comics
  8. Pop Culture! Orchestras, Organs, & Disco: Music in the Rink
  9. Pop Culture! Movies: Roller Skating Across the Silver Screen
  10. Competition: The History of Hockey on Wheels
  11. Competition - Speed Skating
  12. Competition - Dance Skating
  13. Competition - Figure Skating
  14. Competition - Derby
  15. C. W. Lowe's Tent Rink
  16. When Skating Goes to War
  17. Skating for Others
  18. Roller Skating Car Hops
  19. Jam Skating
  20. Extravaganza on Wheels: The Skating Vanities
  21. Vaudeville