This grand spectacle, the Ferris Wheel, is an iconic symbol of fun, frolic, and fright, providing a panoramic view of the landscape with each towering rotation. But how did the invention of the Ferris Wheel come to be?
Who invented the Ferris Wheel?
The story unravels in the late 19th century, during an era of industrial evolution and grand exhibitions. America was on the hunt for a unique centerpiece to outshine the 1889 World Fair’s Eiffel Tower for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Enter George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., an engineer with a head for heights and a knack for defying gravity.
The Ferris Wheel was a jaw-dropping innovation
A native of Illinois, George Ferris was trained as a civil engineer and spent the early part of his career working on railroad and mining projects. The Eiffel Tower’s engineering success inspired Ferris to create something similar yet unique — a monumental challenge that was as much about artistic vision as it was about structural physics. His idea? A colossal, rotating wheel.
The first iteration of the Ferris Wheel was a mechanical marvel. It stood a whopping 264 feet tall – about the height of a modern 26-story building. Its intricate design featured 36 cars, each capable of accommodating up to 60 people.
Convincing the organizers of the Chicago World’s Fair was no small feat, given the wheel’s extraordinary size and the potential safety risks. Doubts and skepticism prevailed. George Ferris was undeterred, though, and finally won them over with his careful calculations and undeniable passion.
Turn of events: A monumental engineering challenge
The first Ferris Wheel’s construction was an engineering ballet, requiring a delicate balance of strength and finesse. Over 100,000 parts went into its assembly, a feat of logistics that had never been attempted on such a scale.
Yet, despite the challenges, the wheel turned just as Ferris had envisioned, marking an unforgettable highlight of the exposition and forever changing the amusement park landscape.
After the exposition, Ferris’s wheel traveled — a fitting journey for a ride designed to take people to new heights. It graced St. Louis for a while before eventually being dismantled. Ferris’s visionary design, however, remained etched in the annals of entertainment and engineering.
A remarkable turn of events
Today, these rides stand tall across the globe, from the towering London Eye to the dazzling Singapore Flyer. They are a testament to the human imagination’s potential and our collective desire to see the world from a new perspective. Even in the age of virtual reality and immersive entertainment, the appeal of a simple, circular ride endures, forever spinning us towards new horizons.
The next time you find yourself taking the Ferris Wheel for granted as one of the more sedate of carnival rides, remember the extraordinary ingenuity and ambition that gave birth to this ever-spinning symbol of amusement.
Now have a scroll through some vintage pictures of Ferris Wheels — including some fantastic antique photos taken while sitting on the actual ride so many years ago — as well as a 1970s-era retrospective on the invention of the Ferris Wheel.
Ferris’ great wheel soared 264 dizzy feet — millions awe-struck
By Bob Barnet in The Star Press (Muncie, Indiana) August 1, 1971
Summertime is fair time, and the cry of the barker is heard o’er the land. In vast cities and crossroad hamlets, the lights cast their magic shadows, and the Judges peer and ponder, and finally award their blue rosettes, and then it is over, and only the crushed grass remains.
For the majority of fairgoers, the music of the carnival midway is the siren song that beckons young and old to the neon-splashed fairyland that is all the more alluring because it appears only once each year, then fades one night and is gone.
Like all circus attractions, the carnival is a blend of the old and new. There is a never-ending search for new shows, new rides, and always there are the familiar things, the merry-go-round, the Ferris wheel, and the stands that offer the long, flat strips of taffy candy.
It is likely that most Americans, asked to draw a picture of a fairground midway, would first sketch a merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel. Carnival rides, most of them fashioned in Europe, have come and gone through the years, but to most of us, these two familiar devices are so entwined in memory that they can never be forgotten.
BOTH WEAR comfortably and hand-rubbed polish of respectable old age. Both trace their origins to antiquity, the merry-go-round to the ancient carousel, the Ferris wheel to the creaking water wheels that for centuries have been a part of man’s gallant battle to wrest sustenance from arid land.
Children were permitted to ride the primitive “wheel swings” on festival days, and the crude wheels sometimes left the riverbanks to become amusement devices.
Wheel rides were little known in the United States until late in the 19th century, and the American version of this familiar device was the work of a young Pittsburgh engineer whose name is forever linked to his glamorous contraption. His name was George Washington Gale Ferris, and he was born in 1859 at Galesburg, Ill. He died, at the age of 37, in 1896.
Ferris graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy, New York, and was head of the Pittsburgh, Pa., Bridge Co. when he was invited, in 1892, to attend a Chicago banquet at which plans for Chicago’s Columbian Exposition and World’s Fair of the following year were unfolded.
One of the banquet speakers deplored the fact that American engineers had failed to produce an outstanding attraction for the fair and pointed to the Eiffel Tower of Paris as an example. Ferris considered this a rebuke and a challenge to his profession, and set out to build a device that would prove, once and for all, that Yankee ingenuity had been given a bum rap.
He got little support from his fellow engineers who, to put it mildly, did not share his belief that his contemplated wheel would be either safe or practical.
C W G FERRIS BUILT his wheel ride, and the result staggers the imagination even of a generation that has sent its sons to walk on the moon. The modern “Sky Wheel,” which is actually two wheels, one set atop the other, usually is 102 to 110 feet in height, or roughly the height of a 111-story building.
The wheel that Ferris set up at the Chicago World’s Fair 78 years ago was 250 feet in diameter, and its total height was 264 feet, or approximately the height of a 26-story building. The two towers that supported the main axle of the single huge wheel were 140 feet high. The main axle, of solid steel, was 12 inches in diameter, 45 feet long, and weighed 140,000 pounds.
Instead of the familiar carriage-type seats, Ferris’ “Great Wheel” had cars that resembled streetcars set horizontally around the perimeter of the wheel. Each of the 36 cars, which was 26 feet long and 13 feet wide, accommodated 60 passengers, providing a capacity for 2,160 people per trip. The total weight of the wheel was 2,807,498 pounds.
The Great Wheel was powered by two 1,000 horsepower steam engines, one held in reserve for emergencies, and was equipped with Westinghouse air brakes. The speed of the wheel was one revolution in 20 minutes. Two revolutions constituted a trip.
During the Chicago World’s Fair and Columbian Exposition, the giant Ferris wheel carried more than 2 million passengers. After the fair was closed, the wheel was moved to another location in Chicago, and later to St Louis for the World’s Fair and Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904.
At the St Louis fair, gross receipts exceeded $257,000, but transportation and re-erection had been costly, and profits were slim. At the close of the fair, the big wheel was sold to a wrecking company, which scrapped it by using dynamite.
SUCCESS OF THE Ferris wheel in the two world expositions gave birth to many other huge wheels of that type, but only one remains in service. It is located in Prater Park, Vienna, Austria.
One of the passengers on Ferris’ Great Wheel in Chicago during its natal year of 1893 was a young inventor and bridge builder from Roodhouse, Ill., named W. E. Sullivan.
Perceiving that such giant wheels were impractical because it was impossible to move them without great cost, Sullivan turned to the task of devising a portable wheel. It wasn’t until 1897 that he could find the time to give the project the attention he believed it deserved, and by that time, he had moved his family to Jacksonville, Ill.
His first device, which he called the Big Eli Wheel, stood 45 feet high, had 12 carriage-type seats, and was introduced to the public on May 23, 1900, in Central Park of Jacksonville, Ill.
From 1900 to 1905, Sullivan continued testing and improving his wheels. The first three were made in different shops, and in each shop, Sullivan tried to convince builders that parts should be made interchangeable.
Only one workman agreed, and in 1905, Sullivan and this man opened their factory and proved their theory by producing the first interchangeable Big Eli Wheel. This device had no bolts but was socket and pin-connected, light and compact, and could be erected in a reasonable time.
In 1906, Eli Bridge Co. was incorporated in Roodhouse, Ill. Because of lack of money, Sullivan was forced to take in stockholders. Because a majority of these believed that the big wheels would never really be practical, the name Eli Bridge Company was given to the corporation.
It is noteworthy that Eli Bridge Co., today one of the world’s biggest producers of Ferris wheels and other amusement rides, has never built a bridge. The factory now is located in Jacksonville, Ill.
TROUBLE CAN COME even to a ride as firmly fixed in the affections of the American people as the Ferris wheel. Rod Link, head of the giant Olson Shows that presently are showing at the Lions Delaware County Fair, reveals that his shows took the road without a single Ferris wheel a few years ago. Labor to handle the wheels just wasn’t available.
“A show had to have special ‘wheel men’ at that time,” Link explains, “and when we ran into a lack of good carnival help, we couldn’t justify using a ride that caused that much trouble when it was time to set it up and take it down. The Ferris wheel always had been a ride that was a steady grosser, but without good help, it wasn’t practical.”
But Yankee know-how again saved the day, and Rod Link, a carnival fan as well as one of the nation’s foremost carnival owners, is happy to report that the Ferris wheels are back again, “bigger and better than ever.”
A change in design and a hydraulic lifting device provided the solution. The wheels now collapse and fold down like the top of a convertible car or an old-fashioned lady’s fan. A hydraulic jack lifts them into place in less than an hour, and most wheels can be erected by only two workmen. The wheels also are operated by means of a hydraulic arrangement and are no longer a problem.
They soar again, these wheels that were born so far back in history, and from the summit, the passenger looks out over a sea of lights and people and feels good inside because of the beauty of it all.
Up and down, around and around — a voyage to the stars, a glimpse of the never-never land, and back, alas, to reality.
A tribute to the original Ferris Wheel in Chicago turns to this day
A reincarnation of sorts, the current wheel that graces Navy Pier was unveiled in 2016 as a centennial celebration marker. The Navy Pier Ferris Wheel, or Centennial Wheel as it’s now known, replaced the original one (which itself was inspired by the original 1893 Ferris Wheel), which had spun its magic from 1995 until 2015. With this new model, the Ferris Wheel reached even greater heights — literally and figuratively.
The Centennial Wheel soars 200 feet into the sky, 50 feet higher than its predecessor. But the ride’s evolution was not just about scaling heights. The wheel now features 42 climate-controlled gondolas, providing year-round comfort for passengers, regardless of the Windy City’s weather. Each rotation offers breathtaking panoramic views of the Chicago skyline and the vast expanse of Lake Michigan.
Operating all year round, the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel does not just offer rides; it offers experiences. Whether it’s basking in the warm summer sun, watching the cityscape drenched in autumn hues, or seeing the landscape transform into a winter wonderland, every season brings a fresh perspective from this high vantage point.
The Navy Pier Ferris Wheel is more than just an amusement ride; it’s a symbol of Chicago’s innovation and enduring love for the man who introduced the world to this rotating marvel. A spin on this wheel is not just a thrilling ride; it’s a journey that intertwines the city’s past, present, and future, keeping the legacy of George Ferris spinning in the heart of Chicago.