Peter Takes on History
June 21, 1893
Ferris' Extraordinary Wheel
With a projected opening date of May 1, 1893, Chicago’s Columbia Exposition was organized to celebrate the 400th Anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. But it was also a chance for the city of Chicago to celebrate its rise from the ashes of the devastating Chicago Fire of 1871.
A contest was held to submit designs for something that would be emblematic of the broad-shouldered city. They wanted “something novel, original, daring and unique.” Something as spectacular as the recently completed Eiffel Tower. Fair designers challenged entrants to “Make no small plans” but after a year of submissions nothing excited the fair design team. They’d seen an early version of bungee jumping where fair visitors would be strapped into cars, suspended by thick rubber bands and pushed off a tall platform. Another engineer proposed a tower with rails projecting from the top and running to various Chicago suburbs so people could toboggan home from the fair.
But then lightning struck. The designers were handed a potential winner. It was a 264 foot tall structure with a wheel that turned on a 71 ton, 45’ axle. There would be 36 passenger cars, each fitted with 40 revolving chairs and able to accommodate up to 60 people, giving a total capacity of 2,160. The blueprints were submitted by a 33-year-old engineer working in Chicago as a steel inspector. A Mr. George Washington Ferris.
Ferris' wheel was not a totally original design. There were already two 50-foot wooden wheels called Roundabouts operating in Atlantic City and Coney Island. The primary difference in Ferris’ Wheel would be the spectacular size of his wheel and the fact that it would be built of steel.
The recent development of the Bessemer process suddenly made steel available in huge, industrial quantities and Ferris would take advantage. But he combined the monstrous wheel with another groundbreaking design of the day; the bicycle wheel! Spokes were not new. Wagon wheels had spokes but the wheels of the modern “safety bicycle” designed in the 1880’s had thin steel spokes that relied on tension rather than compression to support the weight of the rider.
But spokes of this nature were unheard of on this massive scale. Ferris’ design was turned down by fair architects as “too fragile.” But Ferris would not be denied. He spent $25,000 of his own money on safety studies, hired more engineers and recruited investors. On December 16, 1892, his wheel was chosen to answer Eiffel.
The Ferris Wheel first opened to the public on this day in history June 21, 1893. The wheel took 20 minutes to make two revolutions, the first involving six stops to allow passengers to exit and enter and the second a nine-minute non-stop rotation. In the following 19 weeks, more than 1.4 million people paid 50 cents to experience what was described as an “indescribable sensation … of revolving through such a vast orbit in a bird cage.”
When the Exposition ended the Ferris Wheel was dismantled and rebuilt in Lincoln Park, Chicago, in 1895, and dismantled and rebuilt a third and final time for the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. It was demolished there in 1906. But George Ferris is still well represented worldwide though there seems to be some effort to call them “Observation Wheels” nowadays. By my count there are upwards of 140 permanently mounted Ferris wheels, ten of them being more than 400 feet high. The tallest is The Ain Dubai standing 820 feet tall but, for some undisclosed reason, was closed in March of 2022. So, by default, the largest operating Ferris Wheel in the world is in Las Vegas, Nevada. Standing 550 feet high it’s called, you gotta love it, The High Roller.