Ferris wheel's century of ups and downs, round and rounds

August 28, 1993|By Gwen Salley-Schoen | Gwen Salley-Schoen,McClatchy News Service

In 1893, most people had never seen an automobile or an electric light, talked on a telephone or even used a zipper, so it's tough to imagine what went through their minds when they saw the first Ferris wheel silhouetted against the sky at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

These days the Ferris wheel is so common a midway ride it's not surprising to see them in mall parking lots. But even by today's standards, the original wheel would take your breath away. It was 26 stories high and three times larger than the largest wheel constructed since. It stood 265 feet tall and held up to 2,160 people at a time.

This is the centennial of the wheel that George Washington Gale Ferris built, and it is being commemorated at fairs across the country. In Baltimore, the Maryland State Fair pays tribute to the granddaddy of midway rides with the Giant Wheel, which stands 96 feet tall and whirls around at the rate of six revolutions per minute. (With a coupon from radio station WQSR-FM's State Fair Program Booklet, fair goers can take a free whirl on the wheel from noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday.)

As the name might imply, Ferris -- a tunnel-and-trestle engineer and Nevada native -- was the brains behind the original Ferris wheel. Daniel H. Burnham, construction chief for the exposition, challenged the engineers of the country to design an exhibit that would rival the Eiffel Tower, which had been unveiled at the Paris exposition of 1889.

When Ferris first presented his plan, most people did not believe the wheel could be built. Because of its size, it was thought that it would sag or collapse. One Chicago exposition official said, "Ferris is a crackpot. He has wheels in his head."

But Ferris persevered and eventually persuaded the exposition committee to approve the project. By that time, however, all of the exposition funds had been allocated, so the 33-year-old bridge builder began selling stock in the wheel, generating $350,000 in financial backing.

Using Ferris' design, which according to legend was mapped out on a tablecloth in a restaurant and never altered, he and his partner, William F. Gronau, placed orders for more than 2,000 tons of iron bars, trusses and girders that would be fit together like a giant Tinkertoy.

The overall design was similar to two giant bicycle wheels standing side-by-side with a 45-ton axle supporting the weight. The axle, more than 45 feet long and 33 inches in diameter, was the largest piece of steel ever forged at the time. Passenger cars were attached to the outer rings and giant spokes kept the wheels circular. The wheel was powered by two 1,000-horsepower steam engines.

Suspended from the wheel were 36 trolley-like cars, each designed to hold up to 60 people at a time. Each car was made of iron, with wood overlays. There were broad plate glass windows on each side and revolving chairs fastened to the floor. The windows were covered with iron grating, according to the July 1, 1893, Scientific American, "to prevent insane people from jumping out."

The fair opened in May, but the big wheel was not unveiled until June 21, to much fanfare. Ferris was king of the midway. Couples begged to be married aboard his incredible wheel. The price for a 20-minute ride -- two revolutions -- was 50 cents, the same as exposition admission and considerably higher than other midway rides, which cost a nickel.

By the time the fair closed in October, more than 1.5 million people had ridden the wheel.

Ferris was not without his detractors. Some critics said his great wheel was not an original idea, that pleasure wheels, or swings, originally used for irrigation purposes, were essentially the same design. In fact, it was not the wheel itself that was unique, but its size, and the fact that it was powered by an engine.

Following the exposition, Ferris suffered a series of financial setbacks, got involved in a heated battle over the wheel's $400,000 profit and lost his fortune. The wheel stood idle until the following spring when it was taken apart and placed in storage. Several amusement parks offered to purchase the wheel from Ferris, but he refused to sell it.

In 1895, Ferris attempted to open his own amusement park, but a depressed economy sent him even deeper into debt. Shortly after, heartsick and depressed, he died at 37. Following Ferris' death, the great wheel was reassembled once more, for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, but it was a financial bomb and was later abandoned. In the end it was sold for scrap for $1,800.

The Ferris wheel we know today is actually a spinoff of Ferris' design. Another bridge builder, William Sullivan, took a look at Ferris' wheel at the Chicago exposition and adapted the design to portable construction. Sullivan's ideas are still in use today and his family's firm, the Eli Bridge Company, still builds Ferris wheels.

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