George Ferris and his Ferris Wheel

The original Ferris Wheel at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago

The original Ferris Wheel at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago

On November 22, 1898, American engineer George Ferris passed away. He is mostly known for creating the original Ferris Wheel for the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition, created to rival the Eiffel Tower.

George Ferris was the son of an agriculturalist/horticulturalist who is noteworthy for engaging in the development of Carson City, Nevada development during the 1870s. George Ferris attended the California Military Academy in Oakland, where he graduated in 1876. He graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, in the class of 1881 with a degree in Civil Engineering. George Ferris began his career in the railroad industry and was interested in bridge building. He founded a company, G.W.G. Ferris & Co. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to test and inspect metals for railroads and bridge builders.

It is believed that during the 17th century, so called “Pleasure Wheels” whose passengers rode in chairs suspended from large wooden rings turned by strong men, may have originated in Bulgaria. Also Pietro Della Valle, a Roman traveller who sent letters from Constantinople, Persia, and India, attended a Ramadan festival in Constantinople during 1615 and described among fireworks, floats, and great swings also a “Great Wheel”. Also in England, similar wheels supposedly appeared and subsequently elsewhere around the world, including India, Romania, and Siberia. In 1892, William Somers installed three fifty-foot wooden wheels at Asbury Park, New Jersey and he was granted the first U.S. patent for a “Roundabout”. It is believed that George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. rode on Somers’ wheel in Atlantic City prior to designing his wheel for the World’s Columbian Exposition and Somers also filed a lawsuit against Ferris for patent infringement, however Ferris and his lawyers successfully argued that the Ferris Wheel and its technology differed greatly from Somers’ wheel, and the case was dismissed.

The famous Ferris Wheel by George Ferris rotated on a 71-ton, 45.5-foot axle comprising what was at that time the world’s largest hollow forging. It was manufactured in Pittsburgh by the Bethlehem Iron Company and weighed 89,320 pounds. In total, the Ferris Wheel included 36 passenger cars, each fitted with 40 revolving chairs and able to accommodate up to 60 people, giving a total capacity of 2,160.

In 1893, the wheel was primed for a test run. The engine that would activate the wheel was fueled by steam boilers whose underground mains rushed steam to propel the pistons of its thousand-horsepower engines. Both Ferris and his associate W. F. Gronau also recognized the engineering marvel the wheel represented, as a giant wheel that would turn slowly and smoothly without structural failure had never before been attempted. For its inaugural run, no cars had yet been attached. The workmen however, climbed the structure and settled themselves on the spokes to the accompaniment of cheers from an audience of fair employees who had gathered to watch the momentous event.

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