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The History of Theme Park Inventions

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The History of Theme Park Inventions - The Ferris Wheel
Ferris Wheel, Chicago, Ill. 1897

Ferris Wheel, Chicago, Ill. 1897

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The first ferris wheel was designed by George W. Ferris, a bridge-builder from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Ferris began his career in the railroad industry and then pursued an interest in bridge building. He understood the growing need for structural steel, Ferris founded G.W.G. Ferris & Co. in Pittsburgh, a firm that tested and inspected metals for railroads and bridge builders.

He built the Ferris Wheel for the 1893 World's Fair, which was held in Chicago to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landing in America. The Chicago Fair's organizers wanted something that would rival the Eiffel Tower. Gustave Eiffel had built the tower for the Paris World's Fair of 1889, which honored the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.

Finding a suitable design proved difficult: Architect Daniel H. Burnham, who was in charge of selecting the project for the Chicago World's Fair, complained at an engineer's banquet in 1891 about having found nothing that "met the expectations of the people". Among the audience was George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., owner of a firm that tested iron and steel. He had an inspiration and scribbled the design for the Ferris Wheel on a napkin during the dinner.

It was considered an engineering wonder: two 140-foot steel towers supported the wheel; they were connected by a 45-foot axle, the largest single piece of forged steel ever made up until that time. The wheel section had a diameter of 250 feet and a circumference of 825 feet. Two 1000-horsepower reversible engines powered the ride. Thirty-six wooden cars held up to sixty riders each. The ride cost fifty cents and made $726,805.50 during the World's Fair. The original Ferris Wheel was destroyed in 1906, but there are other ferris wheels at theme parks and carnivals everywhere.

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