Mar 082013

Growing up in the Fifties I remember getting my first pair of roller skates when I was seven. They were “traditional” skates, each  with four metal wheels, and the contraption strapped on over your shoe.

Years later a craze for in-lining developed and I assumed that this was a new invention, so I was amazed to discover that in-lining was started nearly two centuries ago.

Here is a splendid engraving showing three elegantly attired gentleman speeding around on their ‘volitos’ (sometimes they are called ‘rolitos’). Their speed enables them to evade the attempt by the Fuzz to hand one of them a warrant. The first man (on the left) shouts back “You’ll have to double your speed or you’ll never catch me!”  Another says “You had better get a pair of Volitos. They would be a great advantage in your profession.” The officer orders them to stop – “You are wanted” while his assistant shouts “Tis no use Master. The fellow has wings on his heels”

The central caption underneath reads:

“THE VOLITO, or Summer and Winter Skait. For Amusement in cold weather without Ice and is equally useful on stones, boards, roads etc. NB the three different wheels fit into the same skait.”

The date is 1823 and the print is shown courtesy of the Lewis Walpole Library. The idea of putting wheels of different sizes under the wooden platform on which the  skaters stood enabled the user to execute turns much more easily, simply by shifting the weight onto either the front or back wheels. The central wheel was larger than its neighbours, with the front and rear wheels smaller still.The spare pairs of skates on the left (foreground) shows how they were strapped on. A metal bar front and back gave an element of control for braking.

Adapting skates for summer use was common in Holland in the early 1700’s. Early “skeelers” as they were called, consisted of wooden spools nailed on to the underside of a piece of wood, onto which the normal shoes were strapped. In 1743 an (anonymous) actor apparently glided onto the London stage wearing a pair of skeelers to great admiration and effect. A later development is attributed to the Belgian inventor John Joseph Merlin who developed a skate with iron wheels (but unfortunately for him, without a brake mechanism. See Horrible Histories.)

The first patent seems to have been taken out in 1819 by a Frenchman. Monsieur Petitbled  invented a brand-new roller skate design using three wheels, made of either wood or iron, or indeed ivory. These didn’t catch on (the wheels kept slipping on any hard surface) and it wasn’t until 1823 that an Englishman called John Tyers came up with the five-wheeled “Volito”. The rest, as they say, is History.

There really isn’t all that much difference in the modern in-liners (a bit more stylish, I give you!).

  4 Responses to “Get your skates on! A history of Skeelers, Volitos and In-liners..”


    let’s see if it will let me comment now….
    I am amazed that inlines were invented so early – my son who skates seriously will be fascinated. By the way, modern inliners have differences in size, composition and arrangement of the wheels dependent on whether for hockey, slalom and other artisitic skating, road skating and so on. They probably cost more size for size than even those made of ivory….


    What an interesting post, Mike. I knew that they had ice skates in the Regency but did not realise that they had roller skates as well.


    Thank you, a fabulous post, how amazing that they were created in the early 19th c!


    […] In 1823, gentlemen wear in-line “Volito" skates. At right, some very cool '90s people.(illustration via) […]

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