The History of Roller Skating

By: Patty Rasmussen  | 
Six people roller skate together
Roller skating is a relatively recent development in the scope of popular sports and recreational activities. Flashpop / Getty Images

Roller skating saw a spike in popularity during the pandemic. In May 2020, the manufacturer Rollerblade enjoyed its largest shipping month in 20 years as people sought creative ways to exercise outdoors.

But how did we get to this point? Has the history of roller skating been a winding road or as straight as the wheels on a set of Rollerblades?


Who Invented Roller Skates?

The individual with the most U.S. skate patents was James Leonard Plimpton, but a few different people contributed to the development of what we now recognize as roller skates.

John Joseph Merlin

The fun began in the mid-1760s when Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin developed his roller skate prototype, lining the metal wheels in a row along the bottom of the skate, similar to an inline skate.


Merlin frequently wore his roller skates while at social engagements to advertise both his inventions and the Museum of Mechanics, where he put his inventions on display. Unfortunately, his skates were not equipped with the ability to curve or brake.

At one social engagement, Merlin was wearing his skates and playing his violin amidst a group of people. According to reports, he was unable to brake and crashed into an expensive mirror, breaking it and the violin. He also sustained some injuries.

Charles-Louis Petitbled

Roller skates next popped up in 1819 Paris when Charles-Louis Petitbled filed the first world patent for his "land skates." Petitbled's roller skates were "intended to perform ... everything that the skaters can do on the ice with ordinary skates."

The skates were all sizes, and the soles were made of metal or wood, depending on the model. His skates were unique in that the wheels — typically made of metal or wood — were attached to a shaft that was then attached to the skate. The skate attached to the shoe with "belts."

James Leonard Plimpton

Eventually in 1863, roller skates received a crucial tweak when American inventor James Leonard Plimpton of Medfield, Massachusetts, changed the layout of the wheels. His quad or "rocker" skates increased stability for skaters by placing a set of wheels side by side at the front and side by side at the back.

But his greatest invention was attaching the wheel assembly to a pivot that had a rubber cushion, allowing the skater to use their weight to curve the direction of the skate. In 1866, Plimpton added leather straps and metal side braces for greater stability. He wisely patented all his inventions and changes.

According to Max McKillip, archivist at the National Museum of Roller Skating in Lincoln, Nebraska, Plimpton held more than 20 U.S. skate patents.


Skating Goes Social

Designing and then manufacturing the skates weren't Plimpton's only contribution to what eventually became a popular recreational activity throughout the United States; he also founded the New York Roller Skating Association and promoted the sport as a way for respectable ladies and gentlemen to spend time together.

And for some reason, Plimpton rented pairs of skates rather than sold them. McKillip speculates that might have been a way to maintain the type of people who had access to the activity.


Plimpton leased the Atlantic House, a resort hotel in tony Newport, Rhode Island, which was built in the winter of 1866-1867. He converted the dining room into the first roller rink open to the public in the U.S., then opened another roller skating rink in New York. Roller skating boomed and spread.

"It was a social thing. We have displays about local rinks in the early 1900s and they were pretty much all over the place, even in small towns with a couple thousand people. It was the thing to do. But even before roller rinks were in towns like that, there were traveling roller rinks, like a circus-type event. They'd put up a rink and rent skates until people stopped showing up. Then they'd move to another town."
— Max McKillip, archivist at the National Museum of Roller Skating

Plimpton became rich from his invention but spent a great deal of time and money in court defending his patents from other manufacturers who ripped off his designs. According to a 2015 article in the New York Times, Plimpton fought off up to 300 patent infringement cases, but McKillip says Plimpton successfully defended his patents.

In addition to recreation, roller skating spawned competitive sports — roller hockey, speed skating and artistic skating all take place in the roller rink under the auspices of the USA Roller Sports (USARS), the national governing body of roller sports. McKillip says those sports are all popular and active.


The Evolution of Skates and Skating

Close-up of womans hands tying the shoe laces of vintage roller skates over colourful striped socks.
The first roller skate prototype emerged in the mid-1760s, but the toe stop wasn't widely produced until almost 200 years later. Corinna Kern / Getty Images

Roller skating ebbed and flowed in popularity through the decades, with spikes in popularity typically paralleling advances in skate technology.

  • 1940s: The toe stop — a rubber pad at the front of the skate — was widely produced.
  • 1950s: Drive-in restaurants sometimes featured servers (carhops) that brought food to the cars on roller skates.
  • 1960s: Plastics innovations led to the roller skates' next big thing: plastic wheels that were lighter, faster and more durable.

In the late 1970s, roller skating circled back to its inline roots when two brothers, Scott and Brennan Olson, updated the inline skate with modern materials. The brothers took a hockey skate boot and attached inline wheels and a rubber toe stopper, creating what became known as the Rollerblade, a trademarked brand. Investors bought Rollerblade a few years later, putting in the time (and the research and development dollars) necessary to turn the Rollerblade into the singular product it became.


Skating Culture

Within roller skating there are a couple of important subcultures that are important to recognize, the first of which is Black skating culture. In the 1950s, when segregation was at its peak, rinks would open one night a week for Black customers, calling it "Black Night."

"We have a couple of exhibits [at the museum] that show how segregation occurred in some rinks in some areas of the country," McKillip says. "There's also a subculture of African American skating — jam skating, which is a combination of skating, dance, break dancing and gymnastics, all performed on quad skates. A lot of the skating is on social media because so many of the rinks are gone and people are skating outdoors."


The other fascinating cultural touchpoint was the marriage of roller skating and disco music in the 1970s and 1980s, which spawned such gems as the movie Xanadu, the Broadway musical Starlight Express and roller skating as exhibitionism in Venice Beach, California.

Ultimately, McKillip says, roller skating is simply an enjoyable activity for nearly any age group.

"Its popularity has ebbed and flowed for sure," he adds, "But it's endured because it's fun, relatively easy and low-cost to do outside even if you don't have a rink."