Thursday Salute to Originals: Moving in Circles

Surfing our favorite design blogs this week, we ran across these “sidewinding circular skates” from Hammacher Schlemmer. Their strange, spacey form initially caught our attention. And when we saw how effortlessly the skates spun across the pavement and glided over grass all without the wearer’s feet ever touching the ground, we were hooked. Not only do they look ridiculously fun to use, but these skates revive an old concept, infusing it with fresh design, innovative engineering, and unique function that completely redefines the concept of roller skating.

hammacher schlemmer’s sidewinding circular skates can turn 720° from designboom on Vimeo

But in watching that video and seeing how advanced these modern skates are, we got to thinking about roller skating and where it originated. We’re all familiar with roller skates, and probably at some point have worn a pair (and maybe scraped a knee or bruised an elbow in the process). But what’s their real story?


Turns out roller skates have been around for over 250 years. Originally invented by John Joseph Merlin in 1760, this initial version was more rollerblade-esque, with metal wheels arranged in single line. This design never gained popularity because it didn’t allow users to turn, control speed, or stop – an obvious flaw. In fact, when debuting his invention, Merlin actually crashed himself into a mirror. (Hmm, wonder if that’s what spurred the invention of kneepads?)


But about 100 years later in 1863, James Plimpton completely overhauled Merlin’s design, converting to a 4-wheel configuration that enabled the wearer to maneuver turns and curves, which previous designs had failed to do. Roller skates have continued to modernize over time – think rollerblades, roller derby skates, wheeled-heel sneakers – but this quad configuration is still popular and functional today.


The point here is not just a history lesson about roller skates. The takeaway is more about how an old concept – no matter how good, bad, or ridiculous – can still be reformulated, rethought, and revised into something great.  So this Thursday, we salute all those who dare to reinvent, reinterpret and redefine. Whether it is a simple novelty pastime like roller skating or a larger scale architectural idea – ingenuity and innovation continue to propel the world of design forward, even if it means crashing a few times along the way.

Image credits: Scoop Diamond Galleries, The Core, FunCheapSF