Ferris Wheel Launched at the 1893 Exposition

Let’s Talk Rusty Iron: The Chicago World’s Fair posed an engineering challenge that gave us the Ferris wheel

| January 2012

Most everyone is familiar with the Ferris wheel, but how many know why the popular ride bears that name? In fact, the ancestors of the present day tall and brightly lit fair and carnival rides have been around for centuries and were first known as “pleasure wheels.”

Pietro Delle Valle described a ride on a pleasure wheel at a Ramadan festival he attended in Constantinople in 1615. “I was delighted to find myself swept upwards and downwards at such speed,” he wrote. “But the wheel turned round so rapidly that a Greek who was sitting near me couldn’t bear it any longer and shouted out ‘Enough! Enough!’”

English traveler Peter Mundy wrote of a wheel he saw in the Balkans in 1620: “Like a Craine wheel at Customhouse Key and turned in that manner, whereon children sit on little seats hung round about in several parts thereof, and though it turned right up and down, and that the children are sometimes on the upper part of the wheel, and sometimes on the lower, yet they always sit upright.”

In this country during the latter part of the 19th century, the devices were called “vertical rotary swings,” “roundabouts” and “observation wheels.” The earliest patent I found is from 1886 by L.H. Campi for a steam-driven “vertical rotary swing.”

Rising to the challenge

The committee in charge of planning the great 1893 Columbian Exposition (or World’s Fair) in Chicago was desperate for an engineering marvel to outclass the famous Eiffel Tower that had awed visitors to the 1889 Exposition in Paris. Accordingly, a challenge was issued to American engineers to come up with anything but another tower. As the committee head said, “Something novel, original, daring and unique must be designed and built if American engineers are to retain their prestige and standing.” The Exposition committee turned down a number of proposals. Some were wildly impractical, such as an aerial island supported by six hot air balloons, but most were for various towers taller than the Eiffel.

George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. was a successful bridge engineer from Pittsburgh who had ridden on a 50-foot wooden revolving roundabout in Atlantic City in 1890. Built by William Somers, the steam-powered wheel was driven by a rope or cable around its outer circumference on each side. Somers received a patent for the thing in January 1893.


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