The Invention of the Ferris Wheel

You’ve probably ridden in a Ferris wheel at an amusement park, but do you know why the giant wheel is referred to as a Ferris wheel? It’s named after the man who designed the giant observation wheel for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

In 1892, the fair’s chief architect Daniel Burnham criticized American engineers for failing to design something spectacular and new for the fair, something that would rival the Eiffel Tower from the previous world’s fair in Paris. A young engineer named George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. happened to be in the audience. Stories about when he conceived of his idea for the Ferris wheel vary—some say Ferris was planning the wheel all along and the fair provided him with the opportunity to carry out his plans, others say he sketched the idea out the same night of Burnham’s challenge. Either way, as an engineering student he would have been familiar with the use of wheels for industrial purposes.

Ferris’ wheel was supposed to resemble a large bicycle wheel. Heavy steel beams served as spokes to keep the shape and balance of the wheel. The towers that supported the wheel were 140 feet high and the axle was the largest piece of steel ever made in the U.S. Two steam engines allowed the wheel to turn and it stopped with a giant air brake.

Fair organizers were familiar with smaller amusement wheels, but as one of the men who helped Ferris design the wheel said, “nothing of the kind had ever been attempted before.” The committee dismissed Ferris’ proposal as too dangerous and impractical. Unfazed, Ferris proceeded to find the financial support for his invention. In fall of 1893, fair officials changed their minds and allowed Ferris to erect and operate a “revolving wheel, 250 feet in diameter and capable of carrying 2160 persons per trip.” The fair would open in five months. Ferris knew many steel industry executives and spread out orders for the wheel’s parts among several companies.  The wheel was built essentially according to the plans he had shown to fair officials.

Finally it was time to test the wheel. Ferris left this task to his designer William Gronau. He wrote, “slowly but surely the wheel turned, amid the cheers of those assembled…No carriages were yet placed in position, but this did not deter the men [who had worked on the wheel], for they clamored among the spokes and sat upon the crown of the wheel…finally, when the wheel had made the first complete turn, I could have yelled aloud for joy.” Later cars were hung so as many as 2,000 people at one time could take the twenty-minute ride and get a terrific view of the fair from the top of the wheel. By June 21, the Ferris wheel was open to the public.

There were no passenger injuries, and by the end of the Exposition Ferris’ invention had carried 1.5 million people. After the Exposition in Chicago closed, the wheel appeared again in St. Louis at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The wheel was later destroyed by dynamite, but the name of Ferris’ invention lives on in amusement parks around the world.

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