In A Nutshell
When America was getting ready to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s generally accepted discovery of the New World, they wanted something that would be bigger and better than the recently unveiled Eiffel Tower. A young engineer named George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. came up with the idea to take the centuries-old concept of a vertically rotating sort of people-carrier and make it steel and massive. The so-called Ferris wheel turned an incredible profit for the first few years, but after several relocations and waning popularity, it met a heartbreaking end involving a lot of dynamite.
The Whole Bushel
The Eiffel Tower is pretty impressive, we’ll admit it. It was especially so back in the day, when it took center stage at the 1889 Paris Exposition. At 300 meters (985 ft) tall, it towered over the Parisian cityscape.
Human nature being what human nature is, it’s not surprising that a few years later, America wanted to make a point of creating something even more impressive for the centerpiece of their celebration of the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s widely accepted discovery of the New World.
Wanting to attract all the best minds and brightest engineers, gatherings were held with the specific purpose of developing the most impressive center structure that they could come up with. They knew that they could build something taller, but that wasn’t nearly impressive enough.
They wanted it to do something, and they wanted everyone who saw it to be blown away by the ingenuity of America.
The engineer with the winning idea was the appropriately named George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., a 32-year-old California Military Academy graduate. With a background in testing the structural integrity of buildings constructed with different methods and materials, he was a logical choice to build something completely out there.
Exactly when he came up with the idea for the giant, revolving wheel is debated, but he saw the opportunity to build it with the request for something outstanding for the anniversary celebration. And even though he got permission and financing to build his giant wheel, his fellow engineers did little other than ridicule him for his thinking, claiming that not only was it an impossibility, but that it would never be built to be structurally sound.
The Ferris Wheel Company was established to organize the funding for the project, eventually raising $600,000. (Today, that’s about $15.5 million.) Construction began, and by the time the project broke ground, Ferris had four months to build something that most of his peers said could never be built.
Problems were compounded by the freezing Chicago winter, which left the top few feet of ground completely frozen. Factor in the necessity of contracting out most of the fabrication to companies around the country and the ultimate necessity of lifting cast-iron pieces (including an axle that weighed more than 44 tons) into place, and you can probably start to imagine the enormity of the project. At the time, the Ferris wheel was made up of some of the largest pieces of forged steel in the world, created at Pittsburgh’s Bethlehem Iron Company.
By June, the first cars were in place and trial runs were made. The official opening was on June 21, and from the top of the wheel, passengers could see out over the Great Lakes and parts of four other states as well. The Ferris wheel attracted a weird sort of notoriety, with some couples attempting to stage their weddings on it, and a number of fake news stories popping up in papers all across the country. The wheel operated flawlessly, though, and in a single day it was recorded to have given rides to 34,433 people. During the anniversary celebration alone, the wheel made $726,805—about $18.3 million today.
After the exposition, the original Ferris wheel was relocated but failed to continue its unbridled success. The company that had created the crowning achievement of American ingenuity began to lose money, and even as it began to sell its stock, Ferris himself succumbed to tuberculosis. Only 37 years old when he died, the wheel continued on briefly without him. After it was moved to St. Louis for another exposition, the local communities around the wheel’s new location took up arms against its continued presence after the end of the public event. Now deemed an eyesore instead of a revolutionary new creation, the wheel was rather unceremoniously dynamited and destroyed on May 11, 1906.
Since Ferris was rather secretive about some of the major components of his construction, he continuously denied curious reporters, journalists, and engineers access to his plans. No blueprints of the original Ferris wheel still exist, and there are only a few traces left of the legacy of a ride that’s still a centerpiece in amusement parks around the world. A historical marker stands at Ferris’s onetime home in Pittsburgh, an acknowledgment of a man who took a centuries-old idea and made it supersized.