Who Invented The Ferris Wheel And When?

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The earliest Ferris wheels, called "pleasure wheels," were described by English traveler Peter Mundy in 1620. In Turkey, he saw a ride for children consisting of two vertically oriented wheels, each 20 feet (6 meters) across, supported by a large post on each side. A similar ride, called an "up-and-down," was featured at the St. Bartholomew Fair of 1728 in England. In 1860, a hand-turned French pleasure wheel was developed that carried 16 passengers. By that time, Ferris wheels were also in use in the United States. One of the early models, in Walton Spring, Georgia, took the form of a large, wooden wheel.

The first "true" Ferris wheel was created in 1893 by American bridge builder George Washington Gale Ferris (1859-1896). Ferris entered the plans for his wheel in a competition sponsored by the directors of the 1893 Columbian Exposition (in Chicago, Illinois). The directors were seeking a special attraction that could rival the Eiffel Tower, which had been featured at the 1889 Paris Centennial celebration. Ferris won the contest and his wheel was erected at the Exposition, which opened on June 21, 1893. It was a gigantic revolving steel wheel, the top of which was 264 feet (80.5 meters) above ground. The wheel was 825 feet (251.5 meters) in circumference, 250 feet (76 meters) in diameter, and 30 feet (9 meters) wide. It was supported by two, 140-foot (43-meter) towers. Attached to the wheel were 36 cars, each able to carry 60 passengers.

The Ferris wheel was extremely successful. Thousands lined up to pay 50 cents—a large sum in those days—for a 20-minute ride. In 1904, it was moved to St. Louis, Missouri, for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. It was eventually sold for scrap.

The largest-diameter wheel currently operating is the Cosmoclock 21 at Yokohama City, Japan. It is 345 feet (105 meters) high and 328 feet (100 meters) in diameter.

Sources: Anderson, Norman D., and Walter R. Brown. Ferris Wheels, pp. 7-23; The Guinness Book of Records 1996, p. 96; Harris, Harry. Good Old-Fashioned Yankee Ingenuity, pp. 125-26.

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