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Argyle Chair
Charles Rennie Macintosh

The Man with Wheels in His Head
by Bob Brooke


June 21, 1893 dawned clear and bright, and for a little while, it seemed to the men who had labored so tirelessly, that the sun rising over Lake Michigan was rotating around the axle of the Great Wheel. Important investors and various dignitaries dressed in their Sunday best, were gathered about. On the speakers’ platform were the officers of the company and other important persons. The last speaker was George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., a 33-year-old engineer from Pittsburgh, creator of the Great Wheel at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. In this moment of triumph, his speech told how he “had gotten the wheels out of his head and made them a living reality.” Ferris’ wife, Margaret, handed him a golden whistle which he blew as the signal to start up the Great Wheel. The Iowa State Band struck up “America” and to the cheers of the assembled thousands, the Great Wheel slowly and majestically revolved, towering above them in its magnificence.

The Great Wheel ran without difficulty until November 6, 1893. A trip consisted of one revolution, during which it made six stops for loading, followed by one nine-minute, nonstop revolution. For this riders paid 50 cents.

On a clear day, patrons could not only see the Fairgrounds and City of Chicago, but miles out onto Lake Michigan and the surrounding states of Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. Attendance on dark smoky days was nearly as heavy as on good days, so it seemed the Wheel, itself, was more of an attraction than the view it offered. Ferris adorned his Wheel with 3000 of Thomas Edison’s new incandescent light bulbs which made it a dazzling sight as they blinked on and off.

How It All Began
In late 1890, Daniel Burnham, the eminent architect charged with turning a boggy square mile of Chicago into a world-dazzling showpiece, assembled an all-star team of designers and gave them one directive: “Make no little plans.” Burnham ‘s competitor was the Eiffel Tower, an elegant wrought-iron structure erected the year before in Paris as the grand gateway to the Exposition Universelle and rising over a thousand feet into the air.

But nobody in the United States had an idea of what could compete with the Eiffel Tower. Burnham told a group of engineers employed on the project that they needed to come up with “something novel, original, daring and unique.” Ferris, whose company was in charge of inspecting the steel used by the fair, sketched a huge revolving steel wheel. He showed his idea to Burnham, who balked at the slender rods that would carry people to a height taller than the Statue of Liberty.

But Ferris wasn’t the first to imagine such a wheel. In fact, a carpenter named William Somers had been building 50-foot wooden wheels at Asbury Park, Atlantic City and Coney Island. He called his wheel a Roundabout and patented his design. But Ferris had been challenged to think big. He spent $25,000 of his own money on safety studies, hired more engineers, and recruited investors. On December 16, 1892, Burnham chose his wheel for the fair. It measured 250 feet in diameter, and carried 36 cars, each capable of holding 60 people.

George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. rode on Somers' wheel in Atlantic City prior to designing his wheel for the World's Columbian Exposition. In 1893, Somers filed a lawsuit against Ferris for patent infringement, however Ferris and his lawyers successfully argued that the Ferris Wheel and its technology differed greatly from Somers' wheel, so the judge dismissed the case.

Ferris’s invention, eventually referred to as the Ferris Wheel after him, consisted of a rotating upright wheel with multiple passenger-carrying components, commonly referred to as passenger cars, cabins, tubs, capsules, gondolas, or pods, attached to the rim in such a way that as the wheel turned, they stayed upright by gravity.

"Pleasure wheels", whose passengers rode in chairs suspended from large wooden rings turned by strong men, may have originated in 17th-century Bulgaria. After that, Great Wheels became part of festivals in India, Persia, and Turkey.

A Frenchman, Antonio Manguino, introduced the idea to America in 1848, when he constructed a wooden pleasure wheel to attract visitors to his fair in Walton Spring, Georgia.

More than 100,000 parts went into Ferris’ wheel, the largest of which was its 45.5-foot, 89,320-pound axle that had to be hoisted onto two towers 140 feet in the air. The entire wheel structure stood 264 feet tall. For 19 weeks after its opening, over 1.4 million people rode it and viewed an aerial panorama few had ever seen.

Ferris’ Background
Ferris was a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, bridge-builder. He began his career in the railroad industry and then pursued an interest in bridge building. Ferris understood the growing need for structural steel and founded G.W.G. Ferris & Co. in Pittsburgh, a firm that tested and inspected metals for railroads and bridge builders.

The Great Wheel
The Great Wheel rotated on an axle comprising what was then the world's largest hollow forging, manufactured in Pittsburgh by the Bethlehem Iron Company, together with two 16-foot-diameter cast-iron spiders weighing 53,031 pounds. Each of its 36 cars, able to accommodate up to 60 people, had 40 revolving twisted-wire chairs, giving a total capacity of 2,160. The wheel carried some 38,000 passengers daily.

But designing the Wheel was no easy task, even for experienced engineers. Stresses for such a structure had never been determined, so they had to go with established principles. Ferris also had difficulties finding financing because the U.S. was in the midst of a severe depression at the time But his quiet yet enthusiastic manner inspired confidence, and eventually he was able to raise $600,000 for the project.

Armed with completed plans and guaranteed financing, Ferris approached the Columbian Exposition’s Ways and Means Committee in the spring of 1892. But the Committee treated his ideas as those of a lunatic. They called him “The Man with Wheels in his Head.” But Ferris persisted, and finally the Committee granted him a concession to build the Wheel, not on the main Fairgrounds in Jackson Park, but on the Midway along Central Avenue. By the terms of this concession, granted December 16,1892, The Ferris Wheel Company would retain $300,000 received from the sale of tickets, after which it had to pay one-half of the gross receipts to the Exposition.

By this time it was already midwinter and only four months until the opening of the Exposition. Since no single metal shop could do all the work, Ferris’ Company awarded contracts to several different firms, each chosen for its ability to do handle a particular job. Each part had to be precisely made as few could be assembled until they were on site. Ferris called on 32-year-old Luther Rice, only three years out of engineering school, to become Construction Chief of the project. The foundation work proceeded slowly in the face of the most severe winter that Chicago had experienced in many years.

The frost at the Wheel site was three feet deep and under it lay 20 feet of saturated sand, which could, when disturbed by construction activities or vibration, suddenly behave like the quicksand. Rice kept pumps running day and night. He had live steam piped in to thaw the frozen sand and later to keep the concrete from freezing before it had set. Workers drove piles a further 32 feet to bedrock and upon steel beams resting on these piles workers built the eight 20 by 20 by 35-foot monolithic reinforced concrete and masonry piers which were to support the towers which in turn would support the axle.

On March 18, 1893, the Wheel’s axle arrived from Pittsburgh. At 45½ feet long and 33 inches in diameter, it was the largest hollow forged object at the time. Four and one-half feet from each end it carried two 16-foot diameter cast-iron spiders weighing 53,031 pounds. On March 20, Rice’s men completed placing the first tower post. Shortly after came the problem of raising the axle. In an amazingly short two hours, cranes hoisted the immense axle assembly to the top of the 140 feet high towers and placed it neatly in its sturdy pillow blocks.

Next came the involved process of assembling the actual wheel. Meanwhile, workers constructed the Wheel’s power plant 700 feet away outside the grounds. Ten-inch steam pipes fed two 1000 horse power reversible engines—one to be used for driving the wheel and the second held in readiness as an emergency reserve. Ferris employed a Westinghouse air brake to control the Wheel and to hold it motionless when desired.

When the Columbian Exposition opened on May 1,1893, the steelworkers where still working high on the growing Wheel. By June 9, the Wheel, as yet without cars, was ready for a trial run. At 6:00 P.M. in the evening with trusted men stationed at various points, Rice ordered the steam turned on. Slowly, without a creak or groan and only the soft clink of the chain, the great wheel began to turn. In 20 minutes, it had completed one revolution. When he got the word, Ferris, who was in Pittsburgh at the time, immediately ordered the 36 cars hung.

The sight of it moving slowly on that summer evening excited the crowds. From all sides fairgoers shouted and cheered. On June 10, workers hung the first car. And by June 13, 20 more had been added and the offices and loading platforms practically had been completed.

The cars were 24 feet long, 13 feet wide, and 10 feet high, and weighed 26,000 pounds. Each car carried fancy twisted wire chairs for 38 of the 60 passengers. The five large plate glass windows on each side had heavy screens and the doors at each end had secure locks. Each car had firefighting equipment on board as a safeguard. Six platforms helped to speed loading and unloading, with a guard at each to signal the operator when his car was filled and locked. Conductors rode in each car to answer patrons’ questions or, if necessary, to calm their fears.

On June 11, with six cars hung, Daniel Burnham arrived to take a trial trip and Margaret Ferris went along. At 6 P.M. on June 13, Rice held a trial trip for the local press who were very enthusiastic in their praise.

The Great Wheel’s End
Though the Exposition closed on November 1, 1893, the Wheel stood idle on the Midway until April 29, 1894. The Ferris Company’s failure to remove the Wheel after the close of the fair brought complaints from many who considered it to be an eyesore. Ferris had it dismantled and stored until the following year. It took 86 days and cost $14,833 to dismantle it. Beginning in July, 1895, Ferris had his Wheel rebuilt on Chicago's North Side, adjacent to Lincoln Park, next to an exclusive neighborhood only 20 minutes from the city’s principal hotels and railway stations. The Directors sold bonds hoping to landscape the grounds, build a restaurant, a band shell, a Vaudeville theater, and paint the Wheel and cars. Most of these improvements were never made, and the company began to lose money rapidly, as patrons failed to materialize.


WATCH A VIDEO:  The Great Wheel at Lincoln Park

But when the fair gates closed, Ferris became immersed in a tangle of wheel-related lawsuits about debts he owed suppliers and that the fair owed him. In 1896, bankrupt and suffering from typhoid fever, he died at age 37. A wrecking company bought the wheel and sold it to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Two years later, it was dynamited into scrap.

The Great Wheel operated at its North Side location from October 1895 until 1903, when it was again dismantled, then transported by rail to St. Louis for the 1904 World's Fair. and finally destroyed with dynamite controlled demolition on May 11, 1906.

So died the one and only official Ferris wheel. But the invention lives on today in smaller portable versions inspired by the pleasure Ferris made possible. But at boardwalks, county fairs and parish festivals around the globe millions whirl through the sky in neon-lit wheels and know the sensation that, years later.

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