History and Background
With nothing more than a two-by-four on roller-skate wheels, the sidewalk surfers of the 30s, 40s, and 50s had a straightforward mission: Start at the top of a hill and ride down. The primary goal was just to stay on and avoid collisions; given the humble equipment and rough road conditions, it was no small challenge. Now, thanks in part to improvements in design and materials, skateboarders have a higher calling.
In a blur of flying acrobatics, skaters leap and skid over and onto obstacles, executing flips and turns of ever increasing complexity--all at top speeds. For onlookers and beginners, it can be hard to follow the action, let alone answer the question that springs naturally to mind: How on earth do they do that? While it may seem that modern skateboarders are defying the laws of physics, the truth is that they're just using them to their advantage. Let's take a closer look at some fundamental skateboarding moves and the physics principles behind them.
The Day They Invented The Skateboard
You may remember the 70's. But I was 9 years old in 1961, and I was there the day they invented the skateboard, at least in my neighborhood.
We took an old metal roller skate and strapped it to a short piece of 2x4, hopped on top and took off. It was wobblier than hell, moved way too fast and vibrated on the asphalt enough to jar every bone in your body and loosen every tooth. It was more like getting electrocuted than anything else. We're not talking any hundred dollar baby here. Maybe more like a buck ninety-five. Figure maybe $5 bucks today for inflation. These were the days when we had hula hoops and Schwinn bicycles. We had Frisbees and yo-yo's and whiffle balls. But we would have traded in any of 'em for our skateboards.
We had a big old hill on Hatherleigh Rd. in the Stoneleigh community between Baltimore and Towson, Maryland. We all took turns trying it out on that hill. Only a couple of us lived to tell about it. The rest, well, they belong in the skateboard hall of fame. There was me, and Bob Filer, and Hammond Brown, and Barry and Buddy French, Jack Tuttle, and Mike McClellan.
Every one of us fell on our ass and broke at least three bones every year. A leg, an arm, a wrist, a couple of fingers. You couldn't help it. From top to bottom it was a block and a half long. It started out easy, then started curving over until it got a good deal steeper -- cars can't get up that hill in the winter after a snow, that's how steep it is.
You had to start down that hill sitting down. Everybody started by sitting on it. There was no way you could go all the way down the first time, even sitting down. You had to get good enough to ride down all the way on your seat, lying flat, trying to keep your feet from hitting the ground. Then starting at the bottom standing up, working your way up a couple of feet at a time, getting your nerve up. It took at least a good two weeks to get it right cause you'd have to heal up for a couple of days every time you tried. After a while, there was always somebody walking around with a cast hobbling on crutches and as soon as you saw them you knew it was the Hill.
When you went down the steep section, you got to feeling like you were flying. Then you'd hit a little bump. It wasn't anything you'd even notice on a bike or just walking down, but, man, on a board, look out! If you made it over that bump you'd fly up and just about everybody crashed right there. But once you learned how to twist a little to get past it, well the rest of it was pretty easy. Unless a car was turning into you just as you got down to the bottom. Then you'd have to veer over the curb, bailing out at just the right time so you could run it off onto somebody's lawn.
That hill became the Challenge. You had to beat the Hill. Then you had to beat it three times in a row. And then, well, by then, if you were still alive, you didn't have to do anything. You were ok. And that's all there was. We didn't jump over curbs. You couldn't anyway, with just a skate underneath. About the only tricks we ever tried was hanging ten off the side or going down on one foot. One guy tried standing on his hands but he fell over and get really messed up by the time he rolled the rest of the way down. A couple of guys tried to be pulled down behind a bike, but they could never do it. Oh, there was a hot dog who tried it every which way, trying to sit on his hands, go down on his belly and stuff, but nobody was impressed.
We were determined to make a faster skateboard you could stay on. We spent months tinkering, smashing down the metal heel at the back of the skate, pulling apart the wheels and mounting them here and there until we got a better balance front to back. We tried every piece of wood we could find. Everybody who was anybody had one of their own they had made. Every one was different. We tried painting them, then we found out the girls liked 'em that way, so we decided that was for sissies and we soaked off the paint and left them plain. But the girls got mad mostly because it was usually one of their skates we were using!
We strapped 'em together. We glued 'em. We nailed 'em. We screwed 'em together. We tried everything. Nothing would hold more than a few times without breaking or coming loose.
Wheels? That was whatever came on a roller skate. Strictly metal. And they only went so fast. Going down the Hill, at some points gravity would be pulling you faster than the wheels could go and half your body would be falling over and that's when you'd get all banged up. Once a wheel was shot, you had to start over. Just about the time you'd get good, you'd have to put another skate on and start all over. And a spare skate wasn't always available. It's not like you could just run up to the store and get one roller skate.
Bearings? What the heck are those? We heard about 'em from somebody's father who was an engineer. But they were kind of sealed into the wheel and you couldn't get at 'em without totally destroying it. But sand and dirt had no problem getting in, and any that did and you were a gonner for sure. You'd lock up and go flying at the worst possible time, usually just when you were trying to avoid the handlebars of a bike or a parked car. And we didn't have no truck with trucks. The roller skate was its own truck. You were stuck with it. They never wore out, but they didn't have any cushioning in them either.
Half pipes? What's this wood crap? When we found a half pipe, it wasn't a half pipe at all. It was a giant size concrete sewer pipe, about 8 to 10 feet in diameter. And when you fell onto that, you knew it. They were hard to come by and we hardly ever got to try one. Even then it would only be for a few days or maybe a week during construction.
There was no such thing as a skateboard park. And it was so new, the parents and neighbors didn't even know what to make of it. But they sure knew we were there. Those wheels made a hell of a racket, especially when they needed oil!
And we didn't have any helmets or knee pads, though we probably would have worn 'em if we had 'em. The only padding we had was our own skin and bones.
Yeah, like I tell my son, you can argue about when it was invented, and you can so it ain't so, but I was there the day they invented the skateboard, at least in my neighborhood.