The original Ferris wheel was designed by Illinois engineer George Washington Gale Ferris as a signature landmark for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Ferris sketched his idea one evening during dinner, and his initial plans were never substantially altered thanks to Daniel Burnham’s (the architect and Director of Works of the Chicago’s World Fair) need for a competitor against the Eiffel Tower (as previously showcased at the Exposition Universelle of 1889.) Many of Ferris’ contemporaries were confident the project would fail, collapsing before completing a full rotation. However, many of them seemed to forget that Ferris was the founder of G.W.G. Ferris & Co, a steel inspection company, and the primary material in the Ferris wheel’s design was steel. Ferris’ plan was officially accepted on November 29th 1892. He spent $25,000 of his own money and built his wheel during the harsh Chicago winter. The World’s Fair opened on May 1, 1893, but the wheel was not completed and opened until June 21. The invention of the Ferris wheel itself had an 825-foot circumference and rotated on a 45-foot axle and was 263 feet in diameter. Powered by two 1,000 horsepower engines, it weighed fifty-six tons. Its height rose to 264 feet and the thirty-six passenger cars were thirteen feet wide. At full capacity, the wheel held an astounding 2,160 people. In addition, there were 3,000 incandescent lights around the crown to illuminate it at night. A single ride cost eighty cents and lasted ten minutes in duration.
The antecedents to Ferris’ wheel were the Carson River water wheel, Ezekiel’s Wheel, The Great Cartwheel (in 17th century Bulargia) and Somer’s Wheel (patented as a Roundabout.) An alternative could have been Fowler’s plan for an amusement wheel, which was modeled after a Dutch windmill.
Smaller versions of the original wheel can be found in amusement parks all over the United States, which provided little cash for Ferris. In 1906, the owners of the original Ferris wheel decided that it no longer served a purpose, so it was destroyed by dynamite. However, in 1895, London opened their Great Wheel in response to seeing Ferris’ Wheel two years prior. Offspring of the Ferris wheel are the roller coaster and other circular motion amusement rides. Examples of modern day wheels are the London Eye and Singapore Flyer.
The Ferris wheel was more than an invention, however, it embodied a changing concept in American leisure during the late 19th century. Earlier in the century, leisure was primarily the realm of upper class Americans who could afford extended excursions to resort towns. Many resort towns, like Newport, Rhode Island, featured luxury hotels and lavish entertainment that catered to privileged visitors, while their distance from urban centers like New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston prevented all but the most affluent from traveling there. However, in the decade before and after the dawn of the 20th century, leisure rapidly expanded to include the lower classes. Inspired by the midway at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, entrepreneurs built Ferris wheels, carousels, and roller coasters in areas already known for entertainment, like Coney Island. Such clusters of family-friendly entertainment, conveniently located close to places like New York City, offered many families a chance to escape the dirty, crowded city environment for a brief period. While still a luxury for the working class, day trips to nearby amusement parks were quickly becoming appealing options for those who had to work standard work-weeks for average pay and still wanted to indulge in fresh air and wholesome entertainment. As more lower class members began visiting attractions like the rides of Coney Island, late 19th and early 20th century leisure became increasingly democratized, with venues like amusement park midways beginning to cater primarily to working-class clientele.
Our blog is going to have separate pages (that include pictures) for the antecedents, George Ferris and the invention and its role in the Chicago World’s Fair, how the idea of leisure culture was changing and what has happened to Ferris wheels today, and the sources we used. On the home page there will be a brief introduction to the Ferris wheel as well as some pictures of it. The separate pages will be clearly displayed on the navigational menu.
The documentary will include a brief look at the antecedents and some of today’s famous Ferris wheels but will focus on why the Ferris wheel was so innovative during the end of the 19th century. By using Creative Commons and Fair Use, the documentary will include pictures of the Chicago’s World Fair, the Ferris wheel, the antecedents, footage of today’s Ferris wheels, commentary, and brief sections of music. We will be using iMovie, a camera with video recording capabilities, and possibly Adobe CS Suite.
We chose the Ferris wheel as our invention because we figured anything from the Chicago World’s Fair would have enough sources since it was so well documented, and because it sounded fun.
Chicago Daily Tribune, 1893-1895.
The Chicago Daily Tribune essentially keeps the public up to date on the status of the World’s Fair in their city and specifically informs the public about everything to do with the icon of the fair, the Ferris wheel. The newspaper introduces the wheel in “Ferris’ Wheel To Be A Feature: It Promises to Be a Greater Novelty than Eiffel Tower,” explains how the wheel is built, how it runs, what it is made out of, how passengers ride it in “Great Ferris Wheel: It is The Landmark And Novelty Of The Fair” and even reports on the successful trial run of the wheel and the celebration that it sparked in “Trial Trip of the Ferris Wheel: It Moves Slowly but There Is No Mishap–Toasts Are Drank.” Once the fair begins, the newspaper talks about the formal opening of the wheel and how Mrs. Ferris supported her husband through the endeavor in “In an Endless Circle: The Ferris Wheel Commences Its Journey Through Space” as well summarizes the concerns people had with riding the Ferris wheel, the amount of people who rode it, and how George Ferris’ name was known all over the world just like the other great engineers of history such as Whitney, Fulton and Edison with the article “The Ferris Wheel: It Will Go Down to History as One of the Wonders of This Century of Wonders.” Finally, in “His Plan For A Wheel: Why H. W. Fowler Did Not Erect Such A Wonder” the newspaper explains the alternative to the Ferris wheel created by H.W. Fowler and why his would not have been as successful as Ferris’.
New York Times, 1894-1895.
In addition to reporting the end of the Ferris wheel and how much it costed in the article “The Ferris Wheel: Cost of Taking It Down and Bringing It to This City,” it reports on a new wheel being built in London in the article “The Ferris Wheel’s London Rival.”
The Washington Post, 1894.
The Washington Post reports on the wheel that London tries to build a rival wheel after seeing the Ferris wheel at the Chicago’s World Fair in its articles entitled “London’s Rival to the Ferris Wheel,” and “The Greatest Wheel: Now Being Constructed in London to Outshine the Ferris.”
Somer, William. 1893. Roundabout. United States of America. 489238, October 28, 1891, January 3, 1893.
William Somer’s patent for the Roundabout is an antecedent to Ferris’ wheel. It was essentially Ferris’ wheel except made out of wood, which was its flaw.
Dawson, Melanie. Laboring to Play: Home Entertainment and the Spectacle of Middle-Class Cultural Live, 1850-1920. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004.
Laboring to Play primarily discusses Victorian American entertainment in the home, and the social constructs of parlor games. Its later sections analyze the late 19th-century shift in entertainment from home-based activities to outdoor, communally-centered environments like amusement parks, and the changing societal values that followed.
Girodano, Ralph. Fun and Games in Twentieth-Century America. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2003.
Leisure and Entertainment in America examines a wide variety of 19th and 20th century American leisure activities, with extensive illustrations. It discusses the role of amusement parks and fairs in recreation well beyond the Victorian period, allowing a more complete understanding of their historical influence after the invention of many mainstay rides like the Ferris Wheel.
Sterngass, Jon. First Resorts: Pursuing Pleasure at Saratoga Springs, Newport, and Coney Island. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.
First Resorts uses three recreational towns popular in the late 19th century to explore the changes in American leisure activities. While the three towns initially cater to similar demographics, by the turn of the 20th century, each had customized its offerings to specific visitor backgrounds. Coney Island in particular became a haven for working class New Yorkers, with its amusement parks offering relatively inexpensive and easily accessible family friendly entertainment.
Adams, Judith A. “The Promotion of New Technology Through Fun and Spectacle: Electricity at the World’s Columbian Exposition.” Journal of American Culture, Vol. 18, Issue 2 (Summer 1995): 45-55.
Although “The Promotion of New Technology Through Fun and Spectacle: Electricity at the World’s Columbian Exposition” focuses on electricity at the fair, the Ferris wheel is mentioned with some because it incorporated electric lights into its design. Adams talks about the wheel’s lights and how it was also used as a showcase for electricity as an ornamentation element.
Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. New York: Random House, 2003.
The Devil in the White City provides great detail and paints the picture of the Chicago’s World Fair and the fair’s atmosphere as well as providing insights about Daniel Burnham and George Ferris’ interactions. It also describes the crowd’s response to the seeing and riding the wheel at the fair.
Richard Cahan. A Court That Shaped America: Chicago’s Federal District Court from Abe Lincoln to Abbie Hoffman. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2002.
On page 45, there is a paragraph about how William Somer challenged George Ferris in court on the patent for the Ferris wheel, but since Somer’s patent was for a “Roundabout,” he lost.
Bell, Dennis. “The Man Who Invented the Wheel, and Paid the Price.” Ancestry.com Learning Center. http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~wanda/ferriswheel.html
Bell’s article gives the background history of his famous Ferris wheel. It gives the history behind the reason for creating the wheel as well as details of the actual wheel. The article also pays close attention to how Ferris’ life has been affected by the creation and popularity of the wheel.
The Eye of Singapore. “Singapore Flyer.” http://www.singaporeflyer.sg/.
The Singapore Flyer is another offspring of Ferris’ wheel. It is currently the largest observation wheel on the planet at 165 meters high. It is the most popular attraction in Asia.
A View on Cities. “London Eye.” http://www.aviewoncities.com/london/londoneye.htm.
This article gives the specifics of one of the world’s newest and most popular Ferris wheels. Built for the new millennium, the London eye is an offspring of the original Ferris Wheel and one of London’s biggest attractions.
“Eyes in the Sky.” BBC News, December 28, 1999, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/581259.stm, (accessed February 11, 2013).
This article was written when the London Eye became the world’s tallest observation wheel and includes a brief background of its antecedents such as the Ferris wheel, but also of a father back antecedent called the “The Great Cartwheel” in seventeenth century Bulgaria.