Ferris Wheelers day off

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  • The Ferris Wheel wasn’t moving when I arrived. The ticket booth was empty and it seemed to be closed for the day. I’m not one for fair grounds, amusement parks and such, but I was a little disappointed as I looked up at the motionless wheel set against the clear blue sky. Sure, this isn’t a Ferris Wheel like those landmark ones in London or Singapore, but nonetheless I find myself, as many of us do, drawn to it, if not to ride to simply watch and wonder.

    George W.G. Ferris Jr. from Galesburg, Illinois, was a construction engineer who worked on railroad tunnels and bridges more than a century ago. Like most people from those faded days of black and white pictures, he would likely have evaporated into history had it not been for a challenge he accepted.

    In 1889 at the world’s fair held in Paris, the French showed off their new and amazing Eiffel Tower to the world. The tower was the tallest structure in the world at the time, and it served as the entrance arch to the fair, wowing all who stood beneath it.

    Two years later the world’s fair was to be held in Chicago, USA. The Americans don’t like to be outdone by anyone, least of all the French, so a challenge was set. American engineers had to come up with something “original, daring and unique” that would surpass that soaring French tower.

    George W.G. Ferris Jr. accepted that challenge. He hadn’t seen the Eiffel tower in person, but he had a daring idea that he thought could show the French a thing or two. His proposal was to build a gigantic rotating “observation wheel” that would take paying customers on the ride of their lives.

    At first his plan was rejected on safety grounds, but Ferris was undeterred. Instead, he went to several Chicago architects and engineers, and raised more than $400,000 to build his giant wheel. The project was approved, and in the summer of 1893 the steam-powered Ferris Wheel was introduced to the world.

    With 36 railway carriage sized gondolas, the world’s first Ferris Wheel carried riders to a dizzying height of 264 feet (80 metres). Ferris and his wife, Margaret, were the first passengers, accompanied by the Mayor of Chicago and a 40-piece band, who were no doubt a little nervous as they ascended to an altitude few would have been to at the time.

    Illuminated by more than 3,000 electric lights, the Ferris Wheel was indeed a sight to behold. After its grand opening crowds lined up to pay 50c for the twenty minute ride. Each gondola was packed with excited and nervous people, and at full capacity the wheel could carry 2,160 people. For nineteen weeks nearly 1.5 million people were thrilled, and possibly terrified, as they rode the wheel that could be seen for miles around.

    It was, by all accounts, a brilliant success. Did it surpass the Eiffel Tower? Perhaps not. It certainly didn’t outlive the French icon. It might have done had Ferris not rejected offers from New York, London, and elsewhere to purchase the Wheel. But with his wheel making nearly $750,000 at the World’s Fair, Ferris didn’t want to sell such a profitable money machine to someone else.

    Shortly after the World’s Fair ended, Ferris became embroiled in a number of lawsuits. He won cases brought by creators of smaller pleasure wheels who claimed patent infringements. However, he lost a long and costly legal battle against the organisers of the World’s Fair, who he claimed had robbed him and his investors of their rightful portion of profits from the wheel.

    In the meantime he relocated his wheel to a nearby park in Chicago and opened it once again in 1895. But this time the people didn’t come. Without the lure of the surrounding World’s Fair, it seemed the wheel was not as enticing as Ferris had thought it would be.

    Entangled in lawsuits and financially crippled, Ferris’s wife left him and returned to Ohio. He was forced to sell his remaining interests in his grand wheel and shortly thereafter he contracted typhoid and he died at the age of 37. His ashes remained unclaimed for more than a year.

    His wheel found a final home in St. Louis, but it never saw the same excitement as it did back at the World’s Fair. It met an ignominious end on the morning of May 11, 1906, when it was demolished by dynamite and salvaged for scrap metal.

    While the Ferris Wheel might not have surpassed the Eiffel Tower in Paris, George W.G. Ferris Jr. might be happy to know of the many impressive big wheels that today carry his name and his legacy to new heights. Right now the tallest of them all stands in Las Vegas, not far from a scaled down replica of the Eiffel Tower. I doubt that a detailed minded engineer such as Ferris would accept such an accolade, but in a strange twist of fate, it could be claimed that in Las Vegas at least, the Ferris wheel has at long last achieved its goal and eclipsed the Eiffel Tower.

    Listen to a great (and short) podcast about the Ferris Wheel from the Memory Palace.

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