Let’s Talk Rusty Iron: The Chicago World’s Fair posed an engineering challenge that gave us the Ferris wheel
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.”
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.
Ferris accepted the committee’s challenge and drew up a 250-foot diameter double bicycle wheel with 36 enclosed passenger cabins the size of streetcars suspended between the outer edges of the two wheels. Many on the committee thought the thing was too big to be built, or that it would collapse of its own weight, but Ferris convinced them and approval was finally given in November 1892 (the fair was to open in May 1893). It was a hollow victory: Ferris won approval but no funding. He was compelled to form a stock company and raise the money himself, besides overseeing the design and construction of the wheel, all within the space of five months!
Well, he didn’t quite make it. Construction proceeded through an exceptionally cold winter; concrete foundations were poured, two 1,000 hp steam engines installed, and in March the two steel support towers were completed. The huge axle (33 inches in diameter, more than 45 feet long and weighing 56 tons) was hoisted into place and then the wheel spokes and rims were assembled, finishing by June 1. After a thorough inspection, the engines were started and the wheel turned successfully for the first time on June 10.
Six passenger cabins were attached and another test run was made with Mrs. Ferris, the construction superintendent and the assistant engineer aboard. After some initial (and disconcerting) crunching sounds caused by rust buildup, the parts shined up and everything became quiet and smooth. On June 16, members of the media were given a ride. One reporter wrote afterward: “Looking to the north and west (was) the great majestic city [Chicago] lying beneath (us) shimmering in the rays of the setting sun. Directly beneath was the panorama of the Midway Plaisance, teeming with activity.”
At last, on June 21, the Ferris wheel staged its grand opening. Everyone who was anyone was invited to enjoy the first ride, scheduled for 3 p.m. It was a sunny, hot and humid day but some 150,000 people crowded onto the grounds to see whether the thing would actually turn without collapsing or to ride on it themselves. Of course festivities were late getting started. At 3:30 the speeches started (it was the 19th century, after all). After Ferris and a number of dignitaries had their say, the wheel finally got started in earnest.
The fair closed on Oct. 30, 1893. More than 1.5 million people had ridden the Ferris wheel. The attraction made money for the fair, which got a percentage of the profit, as well as for George Ferris, who cleared about $150,000 ($3.6 million today). However, Ferris was responsible for tearing down and removing the wheel and was unable to find a satisfactory place to move it. In addition, William Somers sued him for patent infringement, resulting in a long, expensive and bitter battle in which the only winners were the lawyers.
Ferris was never able to make his invention a money-maker. He became ill and was estranged from his wife, and was forced to sell his engineering companies. When he died of typhoid in a Pittsburgh hospital on Nov. 11, 1896, he was broke and alone.
His famous wheel was bought by a Chicago wrecking firm and moved to St. Louis where it was re-erected as an attraction at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Again the wheel was popular and made $215,000 in profits, but after the fair the same problem arose: What to do with it? After several vain attempts to sell the thing, George Ferris’ wondrous creation was blasted into rubble. The twisted remains were shipped back to Chicago. There the junk languished until it was cut up for scrap during World War I.
There will probably always be Ferris wheels, as they can be found at nearly every county fair and carnival in the U.S., while many giant wheels are being built overseas, some of which would tower over the 1893 behemoth. George Ferris’ name will live on for many years, even though the man himself is mostly forgotten. FC
Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at email@example.com.
Check out the circa 1947 Farmall Cub Engine that still powers the 'Big Eli' Ferris Wheel in Jacksonville, Ill.