The History of the Ferris Wheel
as told in the newspapers of the time

From the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, 17 June 1893.
Special to the Commercial Gazette.

Chicago, June 16. . . . . . .
It was 6:15 o'clock last night when the great 1,000-horse power engine underneath the Ferris wheel began to throb slowly. A car resembling a large street car without wheels was swung up to the first entrance landing at the east approach to the wheel. . . .

Some Were Timid.

Then two-score invited guests filed in, their faces expressing all the emotions, ranging from pleased expectancy to a very palpable timidity. Then a second car was swung to the landing and more guests piled in. Some men with voices of marked huskiness shouted unintelligible orders to each other and the great wheel began to revolve for the first time.
It was 6:32 o'clock. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it lifted the cars away from the earth, revolving from east to west. A fourth of the way up the wheel stopped. The passengers gasped in unison and looked at each other with smiles more or less sickly. They looked down and saw that they were hanging directly over the Austrian village. Suddenly they heard the regular throbbing of the engines again and felt much better.

The wheel climbed steadily upward and the passengers grew bolder. Some of them looked over the edge of the car and at once became less bold. In eight minutes the wheel had completed the first quarter of the circle. In seven minutes more the loaded cars had measured half the circumference and hung 266 feet above the earth. . . .

Enjoy the View.

. . . Directly beneath was the wonderful panorama of the Midway Plaisance, black with its seething, world-garnered population, flashing with the mingled glow of colored lights and gay banners.

. . . Of the marvelous mechanism by which this great picture was disclosed to men it is enough to say that its cost was $400,000, that the axle on which the beam turns weighs 140,000 pounds and is the largest piece of steel ever cast in one piece. The entire weight of the wheel and its mechanism is [4,800] tons as is moved by two engines of 1,000-horse power each. Over 2,100 persons may make the trip at one time.


From The Alleghenian, 1 July 1893.
World's Fair, June 28.-- Special. By Robert Graves.

Considered from the engineering standpoint as well as from that of popular interest this is a greater marvel than the Eiffel tower, which earned a great reputation for its builder and a small fortune for its owners. Whereas the Eiffel tower was simply a bridge a thousand feet long erected upon a strong foundation and placed on end, a simple construction like a couple of Chicago's tall steel buildings stood one upon the other and resting upon a tall foundation of sufficient strength to hold them, the vertical wheel is a bridge 825 feet long, 30 feet wide and constructed of steel, twisted into a circle and hung upon an axle round which it revolves by means of the force given it by powerful steam engines. The Eiffel tower involved no new engineering principle, and when finished was a thing dead and lifeless. The wheel, on the other hand, has movement, grace, the indescribable charm possessed by a vast body in action.

. . . It is almost impossible either by picture or description in words to give you an idea of what this wheel is like. A mere statement of its dimensions, 250 feet in diameter, 825 feet in circumference, 30 feet broad and weight more than 4,000 tons, does not mean much to the average mind. It may help the reader to understand what the structure is like if I say that the highest point of the wheel is as far from the ground as the top of one ten-story building would be if it were put on the roof of another building of equal height.

Left: George W. Ferris, bridge builder

. . . There are thirty-six cars on the wheel. Each is 27 feet long, 9 feet high and 13 feet broad. It is like an enormous bird cage. Human beings are to be the inhabitants. The doors are closed when the passengers are within, and locked. The windows are covered with a strong wire netting. There is a conductor to each car to look after the comfort of the passengers. No crank will have an opportunity commit suicide from this wheel, no hysterical woman shall jump from a window. From platforms built on the ground six cars are loaded at one time. Each car will seat, on revolving chairs, forty passengers. Therefore the thirty-six cars will seat 1,440 passengers. But with standing room occupied the wheel has a capacity of 2,000 persons.

. . . it is estimated the total receipts will average something like $10,000 a day during the remainder of the summer. The cost of the wheel complete, was about $250,000.

George C. Tilyou, the owner of Steeplechase Park in Coney Island, one of the most famous amusement parks in the industry's history, was so impressed by George Ferris's wheel at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair that he tried to buy it. But the wheel had already been sold to St. Louis for their 1904 fair. Undeterred, he leased a plot of land and erected a sign claiming the world's largest Ferris Wheel would be erected on the site. The 125-foot diameter wheel (Ferris's original had been 250 feet) was delivered in 1884. Once it was erected and covered with hundreds of incandescent lights, it immediately became the biggest attraction at Coney Island. The wheel ran at Steeplechase until the park closed in 1964.

. . . The steel towers which support the vast bicycle wheel are bedded and bolted into thirty feet of concrete. They are calculated to support five times the weight and the wind pressure produced by a tornado of a hundred and fifty miles an hour. Motion is imparted to the mass by means of huge cogs in which a link belt fits. If anything should break and it be desirable to stop the machinery there is a powerful brake operated by compressed air. The axle which runs from the top of one tower to the other, 140 feet in the air, is the greatest steel forging ever made, being 82 inches in diameter and 45 feet long, weighing fifty-six tons. How Ferris ever got it up there is a mystery to me, but he did it. The cars are so attached to the wheel, it is said, that it is impossible for them to fail to turn so as to preserve the center of gravity.

Left: The Wonder Wheel, invented by Charles Herman and erected by Herman Garms in 1920 at Coney Island, had an unusual design. It incorporated sections of curved tracks connecting the 135 feet diameter outer wheel and a smaller inner wheel. When the wheel revolved, the tracks inclined and the 16 suspended cars, each seating four people, rolled back and forth between the two wheels. There were also eight stationary cars. The ride length was two revolutions, and counting the loading and unloading of passengers it took seven minutes. The wheel still operates today just off the boardwalk at Astroland.

Yokohama Exposition, 1989

Ocean City, New Jersey

British Airways, London Eye, 2000. The world's largest observation wheel.






Photo: David Marks and Julia Barfield Architects

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