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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Almanac/Holy Rollers

Air Date: Week of

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This week, we have facts about the volito. This early roller-skate was patented 180 years ago, with inline wheels that set a new standard for maneuverability.


CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

[MUSIC: UNKNOWN “The Roller Rink Song”]

CURWOOD: An apparatus to be attached to boots, shoes, and other coverings for the feet for the purpose of traveling or for pleasure. That's the official description of Robert John Tyers' volito roller skates, patented in London 180 years ago this week. Mr. Tyers avidly ice-skated and his volito, from the Latin verb meaning "to fly to and fro" allowed the Englishman to enjoy gliding year-round.

Now, there were earlier versions of roller skates, but they couldn't manage curves with the aplomb of the volito. An earlier London inventor named John Joseph Merlin rolled out his wheels at an elegant London party in 1770, turning heads as he skated into the room playing a violin. Unfortunately, recalled a newspaper account, “not having provided the means of retarding his velocity or commanding his direction, he impelled himself against a mirror, dashed it to atoms, broke his instrument to pieces, and wounded himself severely.”

The Volito Skate
(Photo: National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution)

Years later, John Tyers designed his roller skate with five wheels. A larger wheel in the middle allowed skaters to use their weight in combination with the smaller wheels to skate in curves. It was only a matter of time before roller derby and roller disco hit the scene. Then, in 1980, two hockey-playing brothers remodeled an old pair of skates and came up with the latest incarnation of Mr. Tyers' volito: the Rollerblade.

And for this week, that's the Living on Earth almanac.




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