He became known as “the man with wheels in his head.” They laughed at him. Engineers said his giant wheel would crush beneath its own weight. Still George Washington Gale Ferris did not give up. Eventually, the organizers of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago said ‘yes’ to his proposal and Ferris set out to make his circular dreams come true. He carried more than 1.5 million riders to the dizzying height of a 24-story building where they could view three states at once. The first giant Ferris wheel had steep highs and lows. It was both a glorious success and a spectacular failure.
The 51st U.S. Congress declared that a fair would be held to honor the 400-year anniversary of Columbus landing in the New World. The Chicago World’s Fair was to serve as a symbol of American ingenuity and America’s emerging dominance as an industrial power.
Rising architect Daniel H. Burnham was appointed Director of Works of the 630-acre fair grounds in Jackson Park. He was a noted urban planner and designer of several skyscrapers. The fair grounds would serve as a model urban design. It would ultimately feature 200 buildings and feature 46 countries.
Burnham announced that the fair needed a landmark focal attraction. At his informal “Saturday Afternoon Club”, Burnham challenged architects and engineers. The winning design had to be huge. No, it had to be bigger than huge. It had to rival the 984-foot Eiffel Tower built in 1889 for the Paris Exposition that commemorated the centennial of the French Revolution.
Burnham was less than excited by the proposals submitted. Many merely mimicked the Eiffel tower by topping its height.
Then George Washington Gale Ferris stepped up with an intriguing idea. He was a 32-year-old senior partner in a Pittsburgh firm that specialized in building steel bridges. Ferris had earned his degree in engineering at the Rensseler Polytechnic Institute. He had made his reputation by testing materials and structures for railroads and the mining industry.
The idea of “pleasure wheels” goes back at least to the 17th century Bulgaria. Before that there were water wheels and Ezekiel wheels. Then in 1893, William Somers was awarded a patent for his “roundabouts.” He built three 50-foot wooden wheels in Coney Island, Atlantic City and Asbury Park in 1894.
Somers later sued Ferris. According to Norman D. Anderson in Ferris Wheels: an Illustrated History, many Atlantic City residents to this day believe the wheel should rightfully be called the Somers Wheel.
While Ferris probably rode on one of Somer’s roundabouts, it can’t be argued that he engineered a structural masterpiece that surpassed all previous pleasure wheels.
G.W.G. Ferris pitched a wheel that would be roughly 264-feet high to loom over the entire fair ground. It would have 36 cars, each 13 feet wide. The first giant Ferris wheel would be capable of carrying more than 2,000 riders at a time. It was a new idea of a pleasure wheel that would provide entertainment for the masses, not just for the wealthy.
Engineers insisted the first giant Ferris wheel would crush under its own weight before it could make a single revolution. Ferris spent $25,000 of his own funds testing his own plans and specifications.
The fair directors hesitated for weeks. They finally granted him permission early in the summer of 1892, but quickly withdrew. Again on November 29, 1892 they gave him permission. By then they had committed their budget, so Ferris would have to provide his own funding.
-It would be located on the Midway Plaisance at the exposition. This was the first fair to devote a specific area to pleasure.
-Ferris used his own credit to create his masterpiece. The country was in the midst of a depression in 1892, so funding was difficult. Still, Ferris raised additional funds through his contacts in the steel industry.
-The World’s Fair opened on May 1, 1893. The first giant Ferris Wheel was completed on June 21st. Ferris had only 22 weeks to build his wheel.
-No single shop was large enough to do all the work necessary, so Ferris contracted several firms.
-Excavation and concrete pouring for the first giant Ferris wheel was accomplished in ten-below-zero weather.
– More than 100,000 parts went into the first giant Ferris Wheel.
– The axle weighed 89,320 pounds and weighed 71 tons. It was the world’s largest hollow forging, manufactured in Pittsburgh by Bethlehem Iron Company.
-Two 1,000 horse power steam-engines powered the first giant Ferris wheel.
-The wheel had 36 cars, each of which carried up to 60 people with a total capacity of 2,160 passengers. They paid 50 cents (some accounts say 60 cents) for a ride that included two revolutions. The first included stops to load each car. The second was an uninterrupted revolution.
-The wheel was lit with 3,000 of Thomas Edison’s new incandescent light bulbs that blinked on and off.
According to the Hyde Park Historical Society, people had considered the wheel with warily. Then, when it finally started to rotate slowly for the first time on a summer evening:
“from all sides crowds formed, shouting, gesturing.”
“Each car carried fancy twisted wire chairs for 38 of the 60 passengers.” The cars were screened and the doors had secured locks. There were six platforms to expedite loading and unloading. “Conductors rode in each car to answer patrons’ questions or if necessary, to calm their fears.”
The wheel was lit with 3,000 of Edison’s incandescent bulbs, all blinking into the night sky.
The Fair closed October 30, 1893. Over the nineteen weeks the first giant Ferris wheel turned, it carried approximately 1.5 million people to the top of the world. It brought in more than $725,00, with a profit of nearly $400,000.
Ferris’ wheel stood on the fair grounds until late April of 1984. It cost nearly $15,000 to move it to a new site adjacent to Lincoln Park. Bonds were offered to create a new pleasure center with hotels and railway stations.
By this time, Ferris had been hit with multiple lawsuits over his wheel and was pressed hard to pay back investors. Shortly after the bonds were issue, he died on November 22, 1896 at the age of 37. His wife had left him. His ashes remained unclaimed.
The Ferris wheel was auctioned off for $1,800. It took crews several months to dismantle and move it to St. Louis for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. Unfortunately, the novelty had worn off and it was not the success it had once been.
The new owners failed to remove the wheel after the fair closed. It was considered an eye sore. Finally, on May 11, 1906, Ferris’ magnificent wheel was destroyed by controlled demolition.
The Chicago Daily Tribune, May 12, 1906 reported:
“The old wheel which had become St. Louis’ white elephant, died hard. It required 200 pounds of dynamite to put it out of business. The first charge was exploded under the supports at the north side of the structure, wrecking its foundation and permitting the wheel to drop to the ground… As the wheel settled it slowly turned…and then after tottering a moment like a huge giant in distress, it collapses, slowly…Within a few minutes it was a tangled mass of steel and iron thirty of forty feet high.”
Both Ferris and his wheel were gone. But the circular symbol of American ingenuity and determination and innovation lived on. Ferris was paid the ultimate compliment when designers of the Paris Exposition of 1900 built their own Ferris wheel. And of course, a great man’s vision continues to delight people around the world as hey whirl through the sky in the name of Ferris.
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