Roller skates got their start with quite a bang, making their first public appearance at a masquerade party in the 1760s. Inventor John Joseph Merlin wore his newfangled wheeled shoes to an event at Carlisle House in London, where he promptly smashed into mirror, hurting himself and the invention’s reputation for decades to come.
In 1818, roller skates made a more triumphant debut as part of a ballet staged in Berlin. Titled “Der Maler oder die Wintervergn Ugungen” (The Artist or Winter Pleasures), the show featured ice-skating scenes, which were replaced with roller skating so they could be performed on an indoor stage. The following year, the first recorded patent for a roller skate was given to Monsieur Petibledin in France. Petibledin’s skates were made to attach on the bottom of a normal shoe, with a wooden sole mounted over a single “inline” row of wood, copper, or ivory wheels.
The modern roller skate wasn't born until 1863, when James Leonard Plimpton created the device he called a quad-skate. Plimpton’s wooden wheels were mounted on a rubber cushion that allowed them to pivot slightly when the wearer leaned left or right. In the building that housed his furniture business, Plimpton installed a floor for roller skating and invited customers to rent his skates and test them out; he also helped establish the New York Roller Skating Association (NYRSA) to popularize the activity as a recreational sport.
Around the same time, E.H. Barney created a metal clamp-on design that worked for both ice and roller skates, and could be tightened using a screw. A version with adjustable length appeared in the 1890s, allowing users with different-size feet to share the same skates—this style became common with kids up through the 1960s.
In the following decades, Plimpton’s design was updated with ball-bearing wheels for smoother movement as roller rinks and roller-polo leagues popped up in cities across the United States. Eventually, standard skates included a tall boot that laced up over the ankle, providing extra support and movement control. Charlie Chaplin starred in the first film about roller skating in 1916, called simply “The Rink.”
During the 1930s, the term roller derby became common for speed skating and long-distance competitions with multiple events. By the end of the decade, promoter Leo Seltzer began altering standard roller-derby rules to make it more of a contact sport, and by the 1950s, the National Roller Derby League included six teams nationwide.
Skate designs were again updated with the development of sturdier plastics and the introduction of toe stops in the 1950s and '60s. Along with the spread of car-centric drive-in restaurants, the skating carhop became a common sight in suburban America.
The disco era reignited the roller-skating trend as adults took to the dance floors in polyurethane skates, and films like “Rollerball” and “Xanadu” featured the fashionable sport. In the 1980s, Scott and Brennan Olson founded the Rollerblade company, which promoted inline skates as the new frontier—like Kleenex, the word Rollerbade is now so accepted, it is often used generically.