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Homewood’s Miller was the ‘Edison’ of roller coasters

  Homewood native John   Miller, born August John
  Mueller, was considered   to be the “Thomas Edison”
  of the roller coaster.

  (Provided photo from  Homewood Historical

John A. Miller is renowned in the amusement ride industry as the “Thomas Edison” of roller coasters and is widely considered as the “father of the modern high-speed roller coaster.” 

Miller, a lifelong resident of Homewood, participated in the design of approximately 140 roller coasters and patented more than 100 key roller coaster components during his lifetime. 

He was born August John Mueller in 1874 in Homewood, the sixth of the eight children of Christoph and Maria Mueller. The family lived in a home on Main Street (now Ridge Road) where the post office stands today. 

Locally, his siblings were also well known. August’s older brother Louis owned a tavern in town from 1893 until his death in 1933. Louis’ son then took the business over until it closed in 1965. Younger brother William was the village’s lamplighter, a job he held from 1893 until 1902, when electric lights were introduced to the community. William then followed his father in the carpentry line and became a homebuilder. 

Like his father and brother, August was inclined to carpentry, but he pursued this vocation in the amusement ride business from an early age. 

At 19, he started working with La Marcus Thompson. Thompson is considered to be the “father” of the American roller coaster, the first of which he designed for Coney lsland in New York in 1884.  August would go on to serve as Thompson’s chief engineer. Throughout his career, August was known professionally as John A. Miller. 

By 1911, August was working as a consultant with the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, a builder of roller coasters, carousels and other amusement rides that is still in business today. 

In 1920, Miller went into business with Harry C. Baker. Their company, known as Miller & Baker Inc., built popular roller coasters all over North America during the next three years. Characteristics of their coasters were camelback hills (multiple straight or slightly angled drops that went all the way to the ground) and large, flat turns.

The partnership with Baker dissolved in 1923, after which August continued to design and build coasters for his own company, The John Miller Company. Miller was a one-man company of sorts and worked out of his home in Homewood. When not at home, he typically was on site at a project supervising the construction of coasters of his design. 

During his long career, August was a prolific designer of safety equipment patented under his name. In 1910, he designed a device that prevented cars from rolling backward in the event of a pull chain breakage. Attached to the track and clicked onto the rungs of the chain, this safety ratchet evolved into the device on the underside of cars today that still make the distinctive clanking sound on wooden roller coasters. 

August’s most important contribution to coaster technology was the underfrictionwheel, patented in 1919. This device found on nearly every roller coaster today, consists of a wheel that runs under the track to keep coaster cars from flying off. This innovation allowed designers to use very steep drops, sharp horizontal and vertical curves and high speeds to make the more thrilling rides patrons enjoy today.

August married Anna Stelter in 1907 and the couple built their home at 1948 Miller Court in 1915. Childless, Anna frequently accompanied her husband on trips across the country to supervise the construction of his designs. 

August died of a heart attack on one of these trips on June 24, 1941, in Houston, Texas, while working on a roller coaster in that city. Funeral services were held at St. Paul Community Church. 
Anna died in November 1946. The couple is buried in Homewood Memorial Gardens cemetery.

Whenever you ride a roller coaster today or fondly remember the excitement of roller coaster rides of the past, consider August Mueller, a.k.a John A. Miller, and his contributions to roller coaster technology and the connections to Homewood.

Jim Wright is an official with the Homewood Historical Society and author of several books on local history, including “Homewood Through the Years.”

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