Origin: Canadian National Exhibition Archives, The Brief History of the Ferris Wheel by Jamie Malanowski, Smithsonian Magazine, June 2015; The Midway Plaisance at the 1893 World‚ Columbian Exposition in Chicago by Dr. Neil Gale (Chicago: Dr. Neil Gale Publishing, April 2017), The World‚ Columbian Exposition: The Chicago World‚ Fair of 1893 by Norman Bolotin and Christine Laing (Urbana & Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992); Gregg (Scooter) Korek, North American Midway Entertainment.
This year (2018) marks the 125th Anniversary of the debut of the Ferris Wheel.
Rivalry is the Mother of Invention
Although initially satirized while it was being constructed, The Eiffel Tower, the magnificent entranceway to 1889 Universal Exposition in Paris, quickly became an international sensation. The event itself, which commemorated the 100th Anniversary of the French Revolution, was applauded as the “greatest fair” of its time.
The fair’s towering entranceway, designed by a firm led by French architect and structural engineer Alexander Gustave Eiffel (who had previously worked on the internal structural elements of the Statue of Liberty), stood a breathtaking 300 metres (984 feet) high making it the tallest structure in the world.
The Pressure Was On
In 1890, Chicago won a very competitive bid to host 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. The pressure was on for the Chicago World’s fair organizers! How could they rival the success of the Paris Exposition and its world-famous Eiffel Tower? Architects, designers and engineers scrambled to come up with “the big idea”. None were immediately forthcoming, and the clock was ticking! To avoid humiliation, Daniel Burnham, the eminent architect charged with designing the Exposition, challenged the team to come up with “something novel, original, daring and unique”.
Enter George Ferris
Despite a mighty effort, none of the ideas they generated could rival the famed Eiffel Tower. Eventually, one of the team, George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., a 33-year old civil engineer from Pittsburgh, whose company was responsible for inspecting the steel used by the fair, conceived a concept and quickly sketched it out on a napkin: a huge revolving steel wheel. It was met with distain by Mr. Burnham, who felt the structure was “too fragile” to lift people high into the air up to the same height as the newly opened Statue of Liberty (1886). Not to be discouraged, Mr. Ferris invested $25,000 of his own money on safety studies, hired more engineers and recruited investors. He raised 400,000 dollars, a great sum of money in the late 19th Century. On December 16, 1892, George Ferris’s wheel was chosen as Chicago’s answer to the Eiffel Tower. It measured 250 feet in diameter, stood 264 feet high, and carried 36 cars, each capable of holding 60 people, virtually the size of a streetcar at the time.
The Ferris Wheel’s Spectacular Debut
Launched on June 21, 1893, the Ferris Wheel was a phenomenal success! It was instantly hailed as the “eighth wonder of the world”. Over the next 19 weeks, more than 1.4 million people paid 50 cents for a 20-minute ride and access to an aerial panorama few had ever beheld. As reporter Robert Graves wrote, “It was an indescribable sensation, that of revolving through such a vast orbit in a bird cage”.
Its Tragic Final Chapter
After the fair gates closed, Mr. Ferris became immersed in a tangle of wheel-related lawsuits about debts he owed suppliers … and the alleged $100,000 in “Ferris Wheel profits” that fair officials owed him. Ferris tried to relocate his wheel to another location in Chicago, but it created more complaints from neighbours than it did paying customers. Things continued to spiral downhill. In 1896, George Ferris’s wife, Margaret, left him. A few months later, bankrupt and reportedly suffering from typhoid fever, he died suddenly at the age 37.
Its Immortal Legacy
Although the original official Ferris Wheel went by the wayside, it inspired many imitators and its name, its legacy and the public’s love of this iconic air-borne attraction continues to thrive more than a century later in carnivals, fairs, and amusement parks throughout the world.