PAST: The Birth of the Ferris Wheel
In 1893, the world turned its attention to the American city of Chicago, where that year’s World Fair was being held. Besides being only the third city in the United States to host the exposition, after the 1876 fair in Philadelphia and the 1884 fain in New Orleans, it also marked an important anniversary for the New World. In honor of Christopher Columbus’s landing in the Americas four hundred years earlier, the 1893 Fair was officially known as the World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition.
To ensure the City of Chicago shined in the world’s eyes, the city recruited the best American designers, artists, architects, engineers and scientists to put on a show that was full of innovation and splendor. For those wanting to ensure they were able to get the best view possible of the elaborate attractions, it was necessary to summon the bravery to travel 264 feet above the fairgrounds. Fortunately they were able to do this in comfort and relative safety, thanks to what was perhaps the jewel of the Columbian Exposition, the Chicago Wheel. Modern fair goers might be more familiar with the attraction’s other name, the Ferris Wheel.
One of the engineers who travelled to Chicago to help design the Expo was a thirty-two year old bridge builder for the railroad named George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. Ferris received word of the challenge issued by the Fair organizers to design an attraction that would dwarf the splendor of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, a city that had already hosted four previous World’s Fairs, including the most recent event in 1889, which is the year the Eiffel Tower was completed. Though the concept Ferris had in mind would pale in comparison to the Tower’s 915 foot high viewing platform, it would have a distinct advantage. The Chicago Wheel would rotate in a circle adding a new dimension and a greater thrill to the act of aerial observation.
The problems George faced are the same many observation wheel designers face today: how to build a wheel larger than any previously built, how to get permission to build at a desired location, how to finance such a gigantic undertaking, etc. George actually wanted to build a 300 foot wheel but it was decided 300 feet would not be much better than 250 so the plans were scaled down.
Once complete, the Chicago Ferris wheel would be a marvel of modern engineering and steel forging. It rotated around a seventy ton axle manufactured by the famed Bethlehem Steel Company of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and could accommodate 2,160 passengers at one time. The passengers enjoyed each 20 minute ride in the comfort of one of the wheel’s forty hanging chairs, each of which held sixty passengers. For this short ride and spectacular view, each passenger paid $.50, which at the time must have seemed rather expensive.
After the 1893 Fair, the wheel was relocated to another area of Chicago, where it remained until it was once again disassembled and shipped to St. Louis, MO so it could thrill visitors to the 1904 World’s Fair. Once this ended, the wheel was scrapped, but not before the device could form a lasting legacy in the realm of fairs, carnivals and city attractions. In 1895, the Chicago Wheel’s 264 feet height was surpassed by the newly constructed 308 feet tall Great Wheel in London, England, which itself was soon dwarfed by the 328 foot Grande Roue in Paris. The race for Ferris Wheel supremacy was on!