A Brief History of Slides

Thanks to Stephen Hawking, a great theoretical physicist and author of A Brief History of Time, for inspiring the title of this post. My knowledge of physics is less than rudimentary but I do know that there are underlying principles at play each time kids launch themselves over the precipice and into the descent. We’re talking about the speed demons, acceleration and velocity getting out of the gate with a little pull from gravity.

Now in more simplified terms that the mathematically disinclined like myself can grab hold of, this is what we’re really saying when we try and quantify the slide experience. It’s pretty much whee to the power of three when screaming down the slide at whoosh factor nine, or in unorthodox mathematical notation
where ‘whee’ is the squeal of unbridled release and ‘whoosh’ is the air flow required to have a full head of hair pluming up from the nape of the neck.

I’ve done some wondering about the antecedents of the slide family. More specifically, I have tried to trace its origins. Not much luck using my standard research tools – Google and interviews with primary sources.

There does not appear to be anything in the ancient visual record that can pinpoint the slide’s birth. There are no paintings on the Lascaux caves, no hieroglyphic whisperings from the Nile delta. I have not come across any evidence-based materials that go back earlier than the beginning of the 20th century. Consequently I have had to rely on broad speculation which I introduce to you the readers as theoretical surmise.

I believe the slide originated in the northern hemisphere, in areas with hilly terrain. Long, cold winters were the norm. Sliding down snowy embankments was great organic entertainment. In North America, this was happening before the Europeans ever arrived on the scene. However, with the introduction of the horse, it’s entirely possible that aboriginal peoples of the northern plains tried to replicate sliding fun in warmer weather. When the family was taking a rest on the trail or setting up camp, it’s plausible that the younger kids would get to zip down a makeshift slide constructed with travois poles.

Before dismissing this musing as completely out of hand, listen to Corn and Potato a wonderful song by singer David Campbell that speaks to a few things that came about via the ‘Indians’. David, an Arawak from Guyana, was world beat in the late 70s and early 80s before the term was coined. He incorporates Caribbean and aboriginal rhythms in his compositions. This was one of the artist’s most requested tunes when he toured schools.

Of course, it may not have happened like this. However, in the absence of empirical evidence to the contrary, I’m sticking with the northern plains Aboriginal Nations as the innovators who brought us what we now know as the slide. If you have other theories, please send them in as comments.

Thanks to the US Patent Office for archival materials dating back to the early 20th century. A few of the illustrations below are from this period. Click here for the photo gallery. There is no indication as to how many of these patents actually went into production. Some are fanciful, some outright funny. All were designed with the intent to elicit squeals of laughter in kids and, after a second look at selected drawings, maybe some mild terror tremors.

Once experienced, whoosh factor 9 is addictive. That’s why we see kids climbing up, zipping down, climbing up the ladders, zipping down again, trying to catch that ephemeral boost. They will even wait in line for minutes on end to slide away in a burst of whoosh.

Size isn’t everything where the thrill of the descent is concerned but it can add a certain cachet. Each of us has our own particular preferences. I’m more a fan of the steep incline than the interminable ride. I want to know is my heart stopping as I look over the precipice anticipating a roller coaster scream?

The Around the World in 18 Slides gallery is a sampling of the ordinary and extraordinary. There isn’t one slide among them that I wouldn’t want to try myself (the dump truck might be a little outré). There is a little bit of everything here including a selection of animal slides – giraffe, elephant, dinosaur… Thanks to all you flickr photogs.

Around the world, 18 photos – a bit of exaggeration on my part. The math just doesn’t add up. I have noted though that Japan seems to have a love affair with slides. Octopus slides and roller slides have captured the popular imagination. Take a look at this Octopus’ Garden and the journey down Japan’s longest slide in western Kyushu.

As it turns out, there is still ample room for scholarly work on the origins of the slide following this minor dalliance with the subject. Will a true historian or anthropologist be able to unravel the mysteries of the slide’s origin, or perhaps confirm the conjecture offered here? Only time and research will tell. In the interim, just keep on slip, slidin’ away…


Image Credits

1. Sharon K – Teardrop Park Slide, NYC

2. Veronica Gomez Castaneda – Sea Serpent Slide at La Laguna, San Gabriel, California

3. US Patent Office

4. maureenld

5. unknown Japanese photograper

3 responses to “A Brief History of Slides

  1. Pingback: Znalezione na:/ Found on: PlayGroundology «

  2. Pingback: Slides history | Iuvotest

  3. Pingback: The Oldest Slide in the World? Maybe Not. Fun? Definitely. - Goric Marketing Group USA, Inc.

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