Round and Round Went the Great Big Wheel: The History of an Eponymous Fairground Ride

Written by Verity Limond


Although what we now call the Ferris wheel has many precursors, from Classical water wheels to the pleasure wheel (a kind of giant communal see-saw found in the early modern Near East and Eastern Europe), revolving wheels have long been associated with fairgrounds in the United States. One early innovator of the rotating fairground ride was William Somers of New Jersey, who built and patented a design for a fifty-foot across wooden revolving wheel for use in pleasure grounds. But it is thanks to the dogged determination of George Washington Gale Ferris Jr, from whom the modern-day contraption takes its name, that such wheels have become an inescapable element of fairgrounds and festivals worldwide. Ferris designed his version of the ride as a dramatic centrepiece for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in response to an appeal from the fair’s main architect, Daniel Burnham. 

The Exposition was intended as a demonstration of the culture, industry, and architecture of Chicago to enhance the city’s reputation and show how it had rebuilt itself after the Great Fire of 1871. The need for an eye-catching centrepiece was particularly pressing because the Eiffel Tower had been unveiled in Paris for the 1889 World’s Fair and Chicago was seeking to exceed the marvels of that event. The Ferris wheel would become part of a tradition of building impressive structures for international fairs and expositions, which included the Crystal Palace erected in London for the Great Exhibition of 1851. It was also framed as an opportunity for American engineers to prove their prowess and superiority through competition. Burnham’s call for a dramatic centrepiece for the Exhibition prompted a range of suggestions, including an island floating from hot air balloons. Other inventors offered variations on the pleasure wheel theme, such as HW Fowler’s plan to construct a wheel carrying eight cabins—though this proved to be vulnerable to being flipped around in the wind.  

Ferris designed a structure in which two connected steel wheels, each measuring 250 feet in diameter, revolved around a forged steel axle and were accompanied by thirty-six enclosed and upholstered cabins that could each accommodate sixty people. Unfortunately, his initial proposal was deemed dangerous, undignified, and unrealistic by the organisers, who rejected it. Yet Ferris persevered, establishing his own companies to build the wheel and finding investors to finance it. Eventually, Ferris challenged Burnham’s rejection by arguing that an architect was not qualified to reject an engineering design on technical grounds. Ultimately, the Ferris wheel emerged as the most structurally sound proposal and the most likely to recoup the cost of construction.  

At the time, the Ferris wheel’s enormous axle was the largest piece of steel ever forged, and the construction work for the project had to be spread out between different companies because there was too much work for any single company to handle. When the Ferris wheel finally opened, it was a resounding success, with 1.4 million people taking a twenty-minute ride on the wheel during the five months in which the Exposition ran. The sheer size of the wheel meant that passengers were offered a moving panoramic view of Chicago that few had seen before unless they had ascended in a hot air balloon. 

Despite its popularity, the wheel brought Ferris little benefit in the long run. After the Exhibition closed, his creation was acquired by various buyers in turn, seeing brief re-use at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904 before being scrapped in 1906. Sadly, Ferris spent the few remaining years of his life dogged by lawsuits and debt from the construction of the wheel and eventually died bankrupted by the enterprise, with no way of knowing that the ride he had created and which bore his name would endure and spread worldwide. 


Bibliography

Anderson, N. D. 1992. Ferris Wheels: An Illustrated History. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press. 

Malanowski, J. 2015. “The Brief History of the Ferris Wheel.” Smithsonian Magazine June 2015. Available at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/history-ferris-wheel-180955300/

Muccigrosso, R. 1993. “Ferris Wheels: An Illustrated History by Norman Anderson.” The History Teacher 27(1), 88-89. 

Weingardt, R. G. 2009. Circles in the sky. The life and times of George Ferris. Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers.  


Featured image credit: “The original Ferris Wheel at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago,” photograph by Anonymous. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ferris-wheel.jpg.

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