Ferris Wheel: The 1800s Invention and Its Inventor

The Ferris wheel was invented because of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Prior to the Exposition, meetings were held throughout the country and attended by engineers and architects. It was asserted at one of these gatherings that American architects had glorified themselves by the magnificent buildings they had built but that civil engineers had contributed little. George W.G. Ferris, Jr., a young civil engineer, graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, bridge-builder, was in attendance and unhappy about what was alleged.

George W.G. Ferris, Jr. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

While engineers and architects were holding meetings there were also other meetings being held by the Exposition directors. They all agreed that it was important America outdo France’s Exposition Universelle of 1889 that included the specially built Eiffel Tower. Those who saw were gobsmacked by its creation. Americans wanted something better than the Eiffel Tower and therefore, as pointed out by the Report of the Committee on Awards of the World’s Columbia Commission:

“Some distinctive feature was needed, something to take the relative position in the World’s Columbian Exposition that was filled by the Eiffel Tower at the Paris Exposition. Towers of various kinds had been proposed, but towers were not original; all that could be done in that line would be to out-Eiffel Eiffel; that is, build a larger tower than was built by him. But mere bigness was not what was wanted ― something novel, original, daring, and unique must be designed and built if America engineers were to retain their prestige and standing.”[1]

Directors of the Exposition then challenged American engineers to create something novel, unique, and worthy of America. Ferris took up the challenge and vowed that he would design something that would give credit to his profession and lift America’s reputation. He thought long and hard about what type of structure might outshine France’s Eiffel Tower and in doing so, inspiration struck.

Ferris supposedly sat down and sketched out a rough plan of a great wheel, one that would be grand enough to view the entire exhibition.* In other words, something that would “out-Eiffel Eiffel.” He prepared his plans, approached the Exposition directors with his idea, and then according to the Cedar Rapids Gazette:

“At first the fair directors only laughed at him. They thought he was crazy, that he was a crank. Then they granted him a concession, but without any thought that he would ever build his wheel. After a time, they concluded that it was not wise to bother themselves further with such a visionary individual, and they cancelled the concession. They were not going to have a wild-eyed man with wheels in his head lumbering up the center of the plaisance with his contraptions.”[2]

Ferris was not discouraged by the rejection and persisted forward with his idea. Just because the directors did not have confidence in him did not mean that he would give up. Instead, backed by sufficient capital, he stuck to his scheme and approached the directors once again asking them to reconsider. They did and gave him the go ahead thereby allowing him to erect what would become known as the Ferris wheel at the Exposition.

Whereas Gustave Eiffel, the builder of the Eiffel Tower had three years to build his creation, Ferris was left with only about four months. His giant wheel standing 15 feet off the ground, weighing 1,300 tons, measuring 265 feet at its highest point, and having a diameter of 250 feet and a circumference of 825 feet was to be placed far out on the Midway plaisance. Moreover, engineers who had doubted Ferris’ idea were shown by him that a tension wheel could be hung together from its axles by rods and still rotate in a perfect circle.

The Ferris wheel built for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When the public learned of Ferris’ novel idea it created a sensation. Some people thought it would surely fail because they “could not believe that a wheel of such proportions would turn on its axle in response to the motive power.”[3] Others were positive that his creation would become the chief phenomenon at the Exposition, and indeed the Ferris wheel became the most talked about and praised structure at the Exposition. Of it Chicago’s Inter Ocean stated:

“What one feature will make the greatest impression upon the people to be longest remembered? In the exposition proper every visitor will have a choice of departments, but after The Fair is taken as a whole, the one feature outside which appeals to the admiration America has for creative genius is the Ferris wheel. It is the first landmark of the exposition listing its graceful rim like a giant spider’s web against the sky … It is the first exhibit of The Fair to the excursionists on the railroads or the boats. It may be seen for many miles across the head of Lake Michigan and it is not surprising that those who have first caught sight of this big spider’s web of steel before they could see either Chicago or the Administration dome, should make it one of the first places to visit when they have reached this new city where genius has stretched out thousands of lines of steel and iron into a lace work as intricate and graceful as the patterns that come from the spider’s loom.”[4]

It was also reported that the Ferris wheel was as attractive at night as by daytime. That was partly because of its plethora of electric lights as pointed out at the time:

“[Its] great rim was studded with 1,400 incandescent electric lights which revolved with it. The grounds and the buildings surrounding the wheel were also illuminated by 1,100 additional lamps, and the display now rivals the illumination in the court of honor. … From a nearer point of view the 2,500 electrical lights all come into view, marking with a line of light the whole outline of the wheel, its towers and its superstructure. The bow of promise then becomes the circle of a great truth set upon a pyramid of fire to make this monster the most graceful as well as the most stupendous structure on the plaisance. The wheel continues it silent revolutions, but so closely set are the lights that it appears simply as a line of light set up against the blackness of the night, and its passengers in the cars look down upon a fairyland that eclipses all the imagination gathered together in the ages when fairies were believed in and genius devoted its powers to the ‘Arabian Nights Entertainment.’”[5]

Ferris wheel - World's Columbian Exposition 1893

Layout of the World’s Columbian Exposition 1893. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

Of the giant structure the Inter Ocean also provided the additional details:

“In reality there are two wheels, twins, thirty feet apart, but it takes both to make the Ferris wheel. These twins are connected by iron rods and struts … Outside of these rods the cars are hung supported by steel bars of about five inches in thickness extending from one wheel to the other. Each wheel has for its outline a curved iron beam 24 1/2 by 19 inches. Forty feet inside is another beam, forming a smaller circle. From these beams or circles extends the massive iron truss work which holds them together.

The axle on which the great wheel turns is a steel bar 32 inches thick and 45 feet long. It is fastened to each of the twin wheels in a steel hub 16 feet in diameter. All of this … is held together by 2 1/2-inch steel rods, arranged to run out in pairs from the axles to spread 13 feet apart at the circumference.

There are thirty-six cars on the wheel, each capable of comfortably seating forty people. The cars are 27 feet long, 13 feet wide, and 9 feet high, and each weighs 13 tons. … The whole thing rests on two pyramidal towers at the axis. The towers are 140 feet high, forty by fifty feet at the base, and six feet square at the top. Each tower has four feet resting on twenty-foot cube concrete foundations. Underneath these are cross bars of steel. The motive power comes from the 1,000-horsepower engine under the wheel. It will find no difficulty in revolving the wheel and the passengers as fast as the latter want to go. There is a brake on, however, to regulate the speed and stop everything … The wheel is moved by cogs on the periphery passing over a chain that looks like a mammoth bicycle chain.”[6]

Despite it proving to be a stable structure, some people worried that it might topple over. What if only half the cars were loaded or what if everyone loaded onto one side of the wheel? Ferris, in the meantime, reassured everyone that the people and their weight were like flies to his wheel and that there could be no danger from carelessness or overloading. He also had such confidence that nothing could happen to his Ferris wheel that he entered the cars to test it whenever a new weather phenomenon struck. For instance, he and his wife Margaret rode in it during a powerful windstorm and reported that “the wheel apparently never knew it. There was not the least tremor to be detected in the cars.”[7]

The cars the people rode in at this time were something like a big bird cage. In addition, the windows were covered with a “strong wire” netting thereby preventing anyone from falling out or committing suicide. Six cars at time were loaded and each car seated forty passengers, so that with standing room 2,000 passengers could be accommodated on any one ride. Once all passengers had entered the door was securely closed and passengers were locked into the car.

“[T]he man in charge [then] gives the signal and the steam is turned into the cylinders of the thousand horse-power engine which moves the vast machine. Slowly, with just enough trembling and oscillating to make the nerves of passengers quiver, the wheel revolves far enough to bring six more cars to the loading platforms. Thus the loading goes on, six cars at a times; and thus, also the passengers make their ascent and their acquaintance with the mysteries of the wheel on the installment plan, by slow degrees.”[8]  

Ferris wheel

View from inside one of the cages of the Ferris wheel. Author’s collection.

Once loaded, the Ferris wheel was then set in motion at a rapid pace and took 20 minutes to complete two revolutions, the first involving the stops to allow passengers to enter and exit and the second a nine-minute non-stop rotation. For most of those who rode it they reported an “indescribable sensation, that of revolving through such a vast orbit in a bird cage, that of swinging in a circle far out over the plaisance in one direction, then turning in the other direction, and still higher, and finally beginning the descent from such a great height.”[9] However, there was at least one Ferris wheel rider who was completely unhappy and demanded the return of his money:

“[H]e could not feel the awful sensation of whirling around a big wheel, as he had anticipated. He expected to be seasick and frightened almost to death. But he made two revolutions with the wheel, looked down upon the grand panorama spread out below him, and never felt any sensation to tell him how he reached an elevation of 250 feet … He was disappointed.”[10]

The Ferris wheel carried some 38,000 passengers a day and although some riders might have been disappointed for the majority who rode the Ferris Wheel it was an out-of-this world experience long remembered. Moreover, it helped to make its inventor an American hero, someone who would be talked of long after the Exposition of 1893 because of his spectacular structure. As the Inter Ocean stated of Ferris and his wheel:

“At night it is a brilliant rainbow of promise for the new principle in engineering. From city, lake and prairie this great and brilliant circle looms above even the Administration dome to mark the location of the World’s Fair where the genius of the world is on exhibition, and it calls especial attention to the American genius that has again accomplished the impossible. … Mr. Ferris had enough discouragement in bringing this enlightened age to the realization of his genius as had inventors in darker ages, but his triumph is complete for he has not only given to the public a novelty that realizes their expectations from the Columbian exposition, but he has also revolutionized civil engineering and shown that great steel bridges can be made to unite their two extremes to form a circle and revolve, carrying their passengers on without knowing where they begin or end.”[11]

After the Exposition, although Ferris had produced what many thought was miracle, things did not go well for him. He alleged that Exposition management withheld from him and his investors around $750,000 in profits. He then spent two years litigating and ended up declaring bankruptcy. His wife also left him. He died at the age of 37 from kidney failure and typhoid fever on 26 November 1826. His ashes remained at a Pittsburgh crematorium for over a year, waiting for someone to take possession of them and pay the costs for his cremation.

As to the Ferris wheel it continued to operate until April 1894 even though the Exposition ended in October 1893. The wheel was then dismantled and stored until the following year when it was rebuilt in an upscale area on Chicago’s North Side, near Lincoln Park. A local resident, William D. Boyce, was unhappy with it being there and cited it as “undesirable industrialism.” He and his neighbors wanted it removed and litigation ensued. They were unsuccessful and it therefore operated in this spot until 1903, when it was again dismantled and transported to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair. It was finally destroyed by dynamite using a controlled demolition on 11 May 1906.


* A Frenchman named Antonio Manguino was the first to introduce a pleasure wheel to Americans in 1848, the same year that Madame Récamier’s lover François-René de Chateaubriand died. The wooden structure by Manguino was erected in Walton Spring, Georgia and used to attract visitors to his start-up fair.

References:

  • [1] Report of the Committee on Awards of the World’s Columbia Commission (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1901), p. 475.
  • [2] The Gazette, “The Big Ferris Wheel,” June 28, 1893, p. 7.
  • [3] The Inter Ocean, “The Ferris Wheel,” August 2, 1893, p. 7.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] The Gazette, p. 7.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] The Inter Ocean, p. 7.
  • [11] Ibid.

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