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It is good to try something new. But the more years that pass, I become more hesitant to try new things, particularly when there is a gathered audience that could witness my failure. For example, as a historian, my head is filled with odd details and tidbits, and, often (though not always), useless information. I cringe when someone asks me to do a trivia game or trivia night. I know a lot of information, but there’s even more that I do not know. How embarrassing to get a history question wrong! More recently, my daughters went sledding down a giant, steep, long and snowy hill. They asked me to join them, thinking my added weight would make them go farther and faster down the hill. They were absolutely correct and we flew down that hill. But as I hiked back up the hill, I noticed that most of the adults waited at the top instead of going sledding down the hill. After hiking up the hill and carrying the sled a second time, I realized it was tiring work, and likely the real reason most adults stayed at the top to just watch. It was also slippery, and the idea of wiping out and rolling down the hill with so many witnesses was enough to make me sit out the next downhill ride. A few weeks later, my youngest daughter wanted to go ice skating for the first time. As it was on ice, falling was not advisable and carried significant and painful consequences. Once again, I noticed that most adults and parents elected to watch their kids skate, instead of actually getting out on the ice, with the exception of a few washed up hockey players that were relieving a slice of their glory days, whizzing all around us. A few weeks ago, my daughter and a group of her friends tried out a climbing wall gym. Once again, I noticed that most of the adults were supportive spectators, and watching. I encouraged my daughter to keep trying and, to motivate her, told her I would put on a harness and give it a try if she made it all the way to the top and rang the bell. Would you believe she climbed right up that wall and rang the bell like she was born to do it? Silently (mostly silently) cursing under my breath, I put on a harness and smiled at the slight fifteen year old who was in charge of belaying me. Are you okay with this, I asked him? Though I was clearly asking myself that question. Of course…it’s my job, he replied with a cheeky grin.

The first recorded use of roller skates occurred in 1743 in the Old Drury Lane Theatre in London England. It’s a splashy story and a humorous one, which is likely why it was so memorable (and recorded). John Joseph Merlin made musical instruments and moved to London from Belgium in 1760 by invitation of the Royal Academy of Science. Merlin became the director of the Cos Museum, and the museum showcased a number of Merlin’s inventions such as a piano, and organ, and a combination piano-harpsichord. Merlin also created a pair of skates with small metal wheels. Here’s the fun part:

One evening he was invited to a masquerade at Carlisle-House, a big estate in London. As his costume, he donned his roller skates and a violin and began to skate around the party, playing the instrument. Although well known as an inventor and musician, Joseph Merlin was not a very good skater. He could not control his speed or command his skates to go in the desired direction, and wildly crash-landed into a huge and expensive mirror, smashed it to bits, severely wounded himself, broke his violin, and set roller skating technique back to the drawing boards.

I can only imagine the dramatic impact of a violin playing roller skater who spectacularly crashed into a giant mirror at a large masquerade party. I can appreciate, however, why it was recorded. That’s one of those stories most people probably told for years.

I did manage to make it to the top of the climbing wall, and I rang the bell, to my daughter’s delight and my own surprise. I did not have a spectacular crash and end up wounded like Merlin, though that was a slight possibility.

I was apprehensive about it, but I will also admit it was exhilarating and, dare I say it….fun to try something new. Thankfully, not a mirror in sight.

James Turner, The History of Roller Skating, (Lincoln, NE: National Museum of Roller Skating, 1997), 7-8.

Photo by Quinton Coetzee on Unsplash

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

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