George W. Ferris

George W. Ferris was the genius behind the creation and invention of the Ferris wheel. Since he graduated with a civil engineering degree, he was familiar with the power of steel.

George Washington Ferris was born on February 14,1859. In the summer of 1864, the Ferris' moved to the Nevada territory. In 1875, George left his home to attend California Military Academy in Oakland, California. He graduated in 1880 with a civil engineering degree from Renesselear Polytechnic School located in Troy, New York. This degree led him to the design of bridges and tunnels, which eventually inspired him to create the Ferris wheel.

In 1893, Chicago received the honor of becoming the location for the Columbian Exposition. The project leaders of this extravaganza wanted to include something spectacular in this fair. When the fair was in Philadelphia in 1876, a tower had been constructed. The Eiffel Tower was included in the fair in Paris in 1879. People flocked from everywhere for both events. The Eiffel Tower was 984' tall and the tower was 300 feet over the city. George Washington Gale Ferris was an engineer from Pittsburgh and he decided to take the challenge of designing a wheel. His first idea was to make this wheel for observation by putting small cars on it. Ferris wanted to have two towers supporting the wheel, which would be 250 feet wide. The towers would be 140 feet high each and the wheel would have 36 cars attached to it. One car would be able to hold 40 people; therefore, the wheel would hold close to 1,440 passengers.

As expected, people laughed at Ferris' idea of this wheel with passengers. They even made the comment that he was crazy and probably had wheels in his head. Ferris ignored the comments and the innuendos because he knew what he wanted to create and had confidence in making it work. What the people did not realize is that Ferris was a bridge builder. He knew what steel could do and the kind of strength it had. In order to visualize or imagine his sketches, try to place in your mind an enormous bicycle wheel. He sketched two pair of rings side by side and hooked together by girders. Now he pondered as to where and how to attach the small cars. The cars could not be attached to the inner rings, so instead he sketched them to be attached to the outer circle.

Steel rods were used to connect the inner rings to the hub. This, of course, would be the spokes. The framework of this wheel had to be strong enough to support its weight, which consisted of a huge axle. Ferris was ecstatic to find out at the end of 1892 his plans for the project had been approved. Another piece of good news was Ferris was able to raise $300,000 for his project. Five steel companies participated in making the steel for the wheel. But a low platform had to be built for the wheel, so a 35-foot hole was dug. The hole was filled with concrete and steel making a foundation. The two towers would be bolted to the platform. Because of the height of the wheel, scaffolding had to be assembled to help workers to work on the inside of the wheel.

Ferris had to determine the method for transporting the parts and also the giant axle. He decided to use five trains, thirty cars long. So in late March of the next year a train was used to transport the parts and axle. The size of the axle was 45½ feet long and 33 inches in diameter! This was the largest piece of steel made in the United States at this time in history weighing 46½ tons!

Getting the axle in place involved a lot of manpower, but it was finally accomplished. The Columbian Exposition opened on May 1, but the Ferris wheel was still being assembled. The closing date for the fair was October 30, and Ferris was hopeful that the wheel would be operational soon. Even if it was completed before the fair closes, people were skeptical as to the wheel's safety. Now the work was to begin since the axle was in place. The wheel had to be finished so the workers worked around the clock. A total of thirty-six wooden cars were added to the steel framework. Each wooden car was about the size of a small streetcar. Since the car could not, obviously, be hung on the inner rim it was placed on the outer rim. Ferris thought it would be a good idea to have two steam engines to run the wheel. One would run the wheel and the second would be a backup in case the first wheel malfunctioned. The steam engines were put in place and the wheel was tested to ensure it was working properly.

The mayor of Chicago made history on June 21, 1893 with Mr. and Mrs. Ferris, accompanied among other guests who took the first ride on the Ferris wheel. Believe it or not, in one of the cars was a forty-piece band. It was an absolutely breathtaking and thrilling moment for the riders on this monstorous wheel as they looked to the ground below. The ride lasted twenty minutes, but seemed like forever to some of the invited guests. The cost for a twenty-minute ride was fifty cents. This was a lot compared to a merry-go-round ride costing five cents. But the thrill and excitement was worth it.

The safety of the Ferris wheel proved itself in a storm that produced winds over one hundred miles per hour. Paying customers totaled 1,453,611 during the nineteen weeks of that fair in 1893. Ferris' wheels are still found at amusement parks all over the world. Some may be disguised by their decorative appearance, but children and adults still enjoy this ride that seems to overlook the world with its height. Ferris definitely created an excitement for people when they step onto this giant wheel. George Washington Ferris' invention of the Ferris wheel had become a huge success. He followed his dream and created a ride that has given us pleasure throughout the years.

© High Speed Ventures 2011