The Ferris Wheel is a common attraction in most theme parks and amusement parks today. It can often be seen towering over the park and its other attractions, creating a focal point for an otherwise sprawling display of engineering feats. Though it is considered to be very commonplace in today’s society, the Ferris Wheel was, at one point, the height of engineering skill and technique. The first Ferris Wheel was built by an engineer, George W. Ferris, to be one of the main attractions of the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893. 1
The World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893 (also known as the World’s Fair) was held in Chicago, Illinois to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. The Chicago World’s Fair was also had a social agenda; it sought to outshine the 1889 Exposition Universelle Internationale in Paris, specifically the Eiffel Tower, and strived to put on a grand display of American engineering and innovation. 2 The exposition ultimately occupied up to three hundred sixty acres on the south side of Chicago. 3 When George W. Ferris submitted his design of the Ferris Wheel for consideration, though it may seem unlikely today, it was met with much unease and controversy. 4 The idea of the Ferris Wheel was very radical in the 1890’s. Ferris’ plans were rejected three times before designers approved of his final plan due to concerns of potential safety hazards.
George Ferris’ original Ferris Wheel that debuted at the Chicago World’s Fair was a true engineering feat of its time. It used innovative building materials, such as a steel, in a ground breaking way. The structure of the Ferris Wheel was comprised of two steel towers, each reaching to heights of over one hundred forty feet, and another steel axel about forty five feet in length. The ultimate dimensions and size of the wheel were about two hundred fifty feet in diameter and it was raised over two hundred sixty feet off the ground. 5 As seen in Figure 1, the photograph of the original Ferris Wheel at the World’s Fair portrayed a towering structure that loomed over its spectators and surrounding buildings.
The success of George Ferris’ original Ferris Wheel was apparent when the World’s Fair, previously not making much money, began to see a tremendous influx of profit when the Ferris Wheel opened up. At the time it cost about fifty cents for fair goers to ride and the Wheel had a maximum capacity of about sixty riders for every one of the thirty six cars. 6 In the 19 weeks that the Ferris Wheel was in operation, over 1.4 million passengers rode on the attraction, each ride lasted about twenty minutes each. The Ferris Wheel’s success was undeniable.
Since its original creation, the original Ferris Wheel that debuted at the World’s Fair has been taken down, sold, and was eventually demolished by the 1904 St. Louis Purchase Exposition. Though the Eiffel Tower lives on, the Ferris Wheel does not. The ferris wheel now located on Navy Pier in downtown Chicago was later built to commemorate the original Ferris Wheel from the World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893. The engineering feat that once was the original Ferris Wheel continues to exist as a landmark of American innovation.
Figure 1: World’s Colombian Exposition of 1893 Ferris Wheel (1893), Chicago, IL. George W. Ferris. Photographer: C.E. Waterman, Wikimedia Commons. Link. (Accessed November 4, 2015)
- “History Files – The World’s Columbian Exhibition.” The Chicago Historical Society. Accessed November 1, 2015. ↩
- Martinson, Tom. “Fairs and Expositions.” In The Atlas of American Architecture: 2000 Years of Architecture, City Planning, Landscape Architecture and Civil Engineering, 330. New York, New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 2009 ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- “The First Ferris Wheel.” The Chicago History Museum. Accessed November 1, 2015. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Jamie Malanowski. “The Brief History of the Ferris Wheel.” Smithsonian. Accessed November 1, 2015. ↩