What is the history of the Ferris Wheel?

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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

An ubiquitous feature of fairs and amusement parks is the Ferris Wheel. As the name implies, it is an enormous wheel. Standing vertically, there are seats or platforms for people to stand. These seats or platforms are around suspended between two round steel wheels.  The wheel revolves horizontally on its axis.  The seats or platforms lift and lower while gently swinging back and forth. As each seat or platform comes to ground level, riders enter and exit. This stopping and starting continues as each seat or platform admits new riders. When filled, the Ferris Wheel goes through several (typically) rotations, allowing riders a bird-eye view of the scenery around and below them.

Today, unless you are attending Renaissance fair, Ferris Wheels are motorized. However, the ride has been around for hundreds of years, long before electrically-powered ones came on the scene. In fact, the name, “Ferris Wheel,” has only been around since the late nineteenth century.

Earlier “wheels” were not for amusement at all; they were designed for irrigation. These “water wheels” date to about 200 B.C…. and it is likely that children played on them from the start!

Wheels designed purely for pleasure are known to date to 1620.  These “pleasure wheels” were found at a Turkish street fair by Peter Mundy, an Englishman who traveled to the region on holiday. Almost a century later, pleasure wheels, now dubbed “up-and-downs” appeared at English fairs. These rides were operated by hand-turned wheels.

It took about another hundred years for “up-and-downs” to come to the United States.  In 1848, entrepreneur and inventor Antonio Maguino, erected one to attract people to his park in Georgia. People picnicking at the park were enthralled by the combination of pastimes. Soon, rides began going up at parks around the country and “up-an-downs” were being commercially manufactured in a number of different designs.

One of the first manufacturers was Charles W.P. Dare, who lived and worked in Brooklyn, New York. Dare created several wooden wheels measuring 20’ x 30’ and sold then to a swing company.  Soon, a pair of brothers began building even larger wheels, up to 35 feet in diameter, where being constructed and sold in Indiana by a pair of brothers. The Conderman brothers made their wheels not from wood but from metal.

Every year, it seemed that people making wheels wanted to create bigger and better ones. The wheel we know today and from whence the name “Ferris Wheel” comes is due to the efforts of an American bridge engineer named George Washington Gale Ferris. In 1893, Ferris began work on a 250 foot wheel that would be operational for the 1893 Colombian Exhibition in Chicago, Illinois.  Ferris’s wheel was much like a bicycle wheel. The outer edges of the wheel had a steel rim on the outside. This hung from the center axle (33 inches wide and 45.5 feet in length)  by way of tensioned steel spokes and thirty-six “cars” were suspended upon it.  The “Ferris Wheel” was an amazing feat of engineering expertise. This first Ferris Wheel weighed a whopping 46.5 tons could carry up to 1,440 people!  During the Expo, 1.4 million people paid for a ride.

While the Ferris Wheel was a success by any measure, its very enormity made its repetition elsewhere unlikely. However, one of the people who attended the Colombian Exposition was another inventor and engineer. William E. Sullivan rode the Ferris Wheel many times during the nineteen week run of the Expo.  He considered how he could make a smaller version that could be assembled and disassembled relatively quickly, enabling the ride to travel to various fairs and festivals around the country.  A bridge designer himself, Sullivan  used his expertise to solve this issue.  Seven years later, in 1900, he designed a 45 foot transportable wheel.  The Eli Bridge Company was founded by Sullivan in 1906. This company still manufactures most of the Ferris Wheels in operation today.

There are two very famous permanent Ferris Wheels currently active and enjoyed by millions of people. One is found in Dallas, Texas.  “The Texas Star” has been a fixture at Fair Park since 1985.  It stands 212 feet high.  It was the tallest in North American until 2013 when “The Star of Puebla” in Puebla, Mexico was installed. 

SourceHow Products are Made, ©2002 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Named after George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., the Ferris wheel is a very large rotating structure which contains multiple passenger carriages attached to the wheel in such a way that gravity keeps them upright as the large wheel rotates. Ferris designed the original structure for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois. Since Ferris designed his wheel, there have been eight others which have claimed the distinction of being the tallest. From 1999-2006 the London Eye, also built on the South Bank of the Thames in order to celebrate the Millennium, held this record, but now one built in Singapore in 2006 (the Singapore Flyer) is the largest.

A standard of carnivals, Ferris wheels are thought to have originated in Bulgaria in the seventeenth century because an early recording of a traveler from Rome named Pietro Della Valle mentions his having attended a Ramadan festival in Constantinople where he witnessed "fireworks, float, and great swings, and...the Great Wheel." Such wheels, then, were made in 17th century England, and, later they appeared in such places as India, Siberia, and Romania. In  an America wooden Ferris wheels was at a fair in Walton Springs, Georgia, in 1848. Later, in 1892, William Somers constructed two wooden wheels at Asbury Park and Atlantic City, New Jersey, and a third one at Coney Island, New York. After Ferris made his wheel for the Exposition in Chicago, Somers sued Ferris, but the court decided that they differed greatly in their technology, and the case was dismissed.

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