Richard Brown, 64; Biomedical Engineer Made Rides Safer

Times Staff Writer

In his Cleveland basement, the biomedical engineer with the thrill-ride fascination went to work. A new roller coaster had opened in Ohio in 1972, but it contained a design flaw that caused several teenage girls to suffer broken collarbones.

He built a precise model of the coaster and borrowed technology commonly used in the aerospace industry to pinpoint the trouble: a spot where the track was too steep, which made the cars over-accelerate and slam around riders who were more slightly built.

The ride was the Jumbo Jet at Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio, and in solving the mystery of the broken bones, Richard H. Brown helped invent an industry -- the biomechanical testing of theme park rides.


Brown, 64, died June 23 after falling on the driveway of his Huntington Beach home and severely injuring his head, said Erika Obert, his daughter.

“He was the most prominent of just a handful of people who worked in this field,” Paul Ruben, North American editor of Park World magazine, said Thursday. “He made sure that the new rides being introduced were not only thrilling but also safe and comfortable.”

Doc Brown, as his colleagues called him, had a doctorate from Case Western Reserve University, a love of roller coasters he traced to his teen years riding the Coney Island Cyclone, and a hand in the design of more than 100 amusement park rides, including attractions at the Disney parks, Six Flags Magic Mountain, Universal Studios and Knott’s Berry Farm.

He also became a pioneer in medicine in 1977 when he developed new ways to monitor the central nervous system of patients before and after surgery, said Jeffrey Balzer, an associate professor of neurological surgery and neuroscience at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“Frankly, he created an entire field of medicine,” Balzer said.

Brown’s doctoral thesis, which explained how to monitor the spinal cord during scoliosis surgery on children, placed him on the cutting edge of neurophysiology.

Today, the practice he developed is commonplace in any operation that involves an instrument touching the spine, Balzer said.


While working in biomedical research, Brown continued to moonlight by taking a spin on new coasters and other thrill rides, evaluating how their owners could make them safer.

“Dr. Roller Coaster,” as he was sometimes called, solved his first patient’s problem by suggesting that the park adjust the incline of the Jumbo Jet’s track and add more padding to the cars.

“A little bit of what he did seemed like voodoo science 35 years ago. He used new technology, and that always scares people,” said Jack Falfas, chief operating officer of Cedar Fair LLP, parent company of Knott’s Berry Farm. He first hired Brown to evaluate the safety of GhostRider, the wooden coaster that Knott’s opened in 1998.

Although some safety experts use mannequins wired with sensors to test rides, Brown insisted on providing his own human analysis.

“I’m the only dummy that rides,” he told the Wall Street Journal in a 1993 story that recounted his role in smoothing out Universal’s Back to the Future flight-simulator ride. When company executives test-rode it, they threw up.

Armed with his accelerometers, which measure acceleration and gravitational pull, Brown diagnosed the problem after one trip on the prototype. The test film on the screen was out of sync with the cars, which made the executives feel off balance. They were motion sick.


In addition to fixing the synchronization, Brown suggested that the film shown during the ride keep an object -- a building, a clock, a tyrannosaur -- on the screen so riders could focus on it to keep from getting dizzy.

Richard Hart Brown was born June 15, 1941, in New York City. His father was a businessman and his mother a telephone operator. From 1958 to 1962, he served on submarines in the Navy and took up diving.

After earning his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1967 from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, he began studying the emerging field of biomechanical engineering at Case Western Reserve, earning a master’s in biomedical engineering in 1972 and a doctorate in 1977.

In 1988, Brown became director of orthopedic research at St. Luke’s Hospital in Cleveland while honing his reputation as the troubleshooting human guinea pig of amusement park rides.

“He always made suggestions for changes with an eye toward making the ride, and riders, more comfortable,” said Larry Chickola, chief engineer of the Six Flags corporation.

“He was a great guy, very sharing and open, and he could be hysterical,” Chickola said. “He made the industry better.”


In 1999, Brown moved to Huntington Beach to be closer to Disneyland and Knott’s, two of his main clients. Most recently, he consulted on the Tower of Terror, which opened last year at Disney’s California Adventure.

Brown enjoyed the outdoors, especially boating, fishing and golf. He also piloted private planes and had done aerial acrobatics. “He just liked to fly,” said his daughter.

That was true whether he was zipping around a webbed steel track or high in the sky.

Brown is also survived by another daughter, Carolyn Treadon; a son, Edward; two brothers; and three granddaughters.

Memorial contributions may be made to the Speech and Language Development Center, 8699 Holder Ave., Buena Park, CA 90620.