The Ferris Wheel


Ron Trevelyan

After undertaking to give a display on the two Chicago World’s Fairs held in 1893 and 1933 to the Study Group Convention in Portsmouth, I began to appreciate the significance of the Ferris Wheel. As part of the planning for the 1893 Fair people from Chicago visited the 1889 Paris Exposition and were, of course, very impressed by the Eiffel Tower. The Ferris Wheel was the US response to this. I also realised just how topical this was when photographs began appearing in the daily press showing the attempts made to raise the 450 foot monster Millennium Wheel by the side of the Thames in London.

The original Ferris Wheel was invented and constructed by George W. Ferris, who was a Pittsburg engineer and bridge builder. He received the go ahead in November 1892 for the wheel to be sited on the Midway Pleasance amusement area of the 1893 Chicago Fair and it was ready by late June 1893. There is no doubt that the wheel was an engineering marvel. For example, the 45 feet long axle was the largest single piece of steel that had yet been forged. The wheel was 250 feet in diameter and at its full height at the top (264 feet) visitors could view the fair and parts of Chicago.

The 36 wood veneered gondolas each housed 60 people, of whom 40 could sit on plush covered swivel chairs. Each ride costing 50c including two revolutions and lasted for 20 minutes. During each revolution six stops were made so that the load from six gondolas could be changed at a time.

The 1893 Chicago Fair was the first to have a separate amusement area and the latter proved to be a very important source of revenue, leading to solvency for the whole event. The Ferris Wheel played a major part in the finances, grossing over $726,000 against expenses of $400,000. A profit for the wheel even after the Fair corporation had taken its pre-arranged slice.

After the 1893 Fair closed the Ferris Wheel was dismantled until 1895 when it was used locally again, without much success. It surfaced again at the St. Louis Worlds Fair in 1904 and was finally scrapped in 1906. My understanding is that the giant steel axle was buried in the grounds of the Fair.

Since then Ferris or similar wheels have become standard fixtures at World’s Fairs and expositions, although, they have not been until now on the same scale as the original. Hence, at the Osaka Exposition in 1970 the wheel was less than 150 feet high and its 20 gondolas carried only five people in each.

No doubt Mr Ferris would be pleased to know that his invention, larger than ever, will live on in London to help celebrate the Millennium.

Acknowledgements                The Anthology of World’s Fairs.        Burton Benedict

                                              Footsteps at the American World’s Fairs.         Stanley Hunter

                                             The Chicago World’s Fair of 1893.         Stanley Appelbaum


           © Exhibition Study Group 2000