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This chief wonder of the Fair was designed by George Washington Gale Ferris. At a Saturday afternoon club dinner, in a city chop-house, while the Fair was building, Mr. Ferris conceived the idea of the wheel. During that dinner, he decided on the size, the construction, the number of cars at thirty-six, the number of seats in each car, the admission fee, the plan of stopping six times in the first revolution to load and another revolution without stopping, and these details, as then instantly recorded on paper, were never altered.
Scientific American, July 1, 1893
Note: Originally published in The Chicago Tribune, June 18, 1893.
THE GREAT WHEEL AT CHICAGO
The wonderful “merry-go-round” designed by Engineer George W. G. Ferris, of Pittsburg, Pa., is now completed and forms a most remarkable and attractive object. This curious piece of mechanism carries thirty-six pendulum cars, each seating forty passengers ; thus one revolution of the wheel carries 1,440 people to a height of 250 feet in the air, giving to each passenger a magnificent view and a sensation of elevation akin to that of a balloon ascent. The practical working of the great machine is attended with perfect success, and its construction and operation reflect the highest credit on the author.
The description of the construction of the great wheel given in the Chicago Tribune will be of interest, and we make the following abstract:
The wheel is composed of two wheels of the same size, connected and held together with rods and struts, which, however, do not approach closer than twenty feet to the periphery. Each wheel has for its outline a curved, hollow, square iron beam, 25½ X 19 inches. At a distance of 40 feet within this circle is another circle of a lighter beam. These beams are called crowns, and are connected and held together by an elaborate trusswork. Within this smaller circle there are no beams, and at a distance there appears to be nothing. But at the center of the great wheel is an immense iron axle, 82 inches thick and 45 feet in length Each of the twin wheels, where the axle passes through it, is provided with a large iron hub, 16 feet in diameter. Between these hubs and the inner “crowns” there are no connections except spoke rods, 2½ inches in diameter, arranged in pairs, 13 feet apart at the crown connection. At a distance they look like mere spider webs, and the wheel seems to be dangerously devoid of substantial support.
The explanation of this is that the Ferris wheel — at least inside the smaller crowns—is constituted on the principle of a bicycle wheel. The lower half is suspended from the axle by the spoke rods running downward, and the upper half of the wheel is supported by the lower half. All the spoke rods running from the axle north, when it is in any given position, might be removed, and the wheel would be as solid as it would be with them. The only difference is that the Ferris wheel hangs by its axle, while a bicycle wheel rests on the ground, and the weight is applied downward on the axle.
The thirty-six carriages of the great wheel are hung on its periphery at equal intervals. Each car is twenty-seven feet long, thirteen feet wide, and nine feet high. It has a heavy frame of iron, but is covered externally with wood. It has a door and five broad plate glass windows on each side. It contains forty revolving chairs, made of wire and screwed to the floor. It weighs thirteen tons, and with its forty passengers will weigh three tons more. It is suspended from the periphery of the wheel by an iron axle six and one-half inches in diameter, which runs through the roof. It is provided with a conductor to open the doors, preserve order, and give information. To avoid accidents from panics and to prevent insane people from jumping out, the windows will be covered with an iron grating.
THE GREAT FERRIS WHEEL AT CHICAGO-ATTACHING THE CARS
It is being considered whether each car shall not have a telephone connection with the office on the ground. It is thought that this would be an attraction, both as a sort of amusement for people who wished to converse with their friends below or in an other car and as a sort of reassurance to timid people. The thought of being detained up in the clouds, as it were, by accident, and not being able to learn what it is or when it will be remedied, might frighten some timid people out of making the trip. It is not very difficult, however, to climb by the wheel itself to any car, and there will always be men on the ground who can do this.
The wheel, with its cars and passengers, weighs about 1,200 tons, and therefore needs something substantial to hold it up. Its axis is supported, therefore, on two skeleton iron towers, pyramidal in form, one at each end of it. They are 40 x 50 feet at the bottom and 6 feet square at top, and about 140 feet high, the side next to the wheel being perpendicular, and the other sides slanting. Each tower has four great feet, and each foot rests on an underground concrete foundation 20x20x20 feet. Crossbars of steel are laid at the bottom of the concrete, and the feet of the tower are connected with and bolted to them with iron rods.
One would naturally suppose that there would be great danger of making such a huge wheel as this lopsided or untrue, so that it would not revolve uniformly. Even if the wheel itself were perfectly true, it would seem that the unequal distribution of passengers might make it eccentric in its speed. But according to L. V. Rice, the superintendent of construction, there is absolutely no danger of this kind. Not only did the wheel alone turn uniformly, but when the cars were hung, one after another, no inequality was observed. As to passengers, Mr. Rice says that the 1,400 passengers will have no more effect on the movements of the speed than if they were so many flies.
Ferris Wheel Axle
Photographer: C. E. Waterman
The wheel, however, is never left to itself, but is always directly and constantly controlled by a steam engine. The wheel points east and west, and the one thousand horse power reversible engine which runs it is located under the east half of it and sunk four feet in the ground. The machinery is very similar to that used in the power houses of the cable car companies, and runs with the same hoarse roar that they do. It operates a north-and south iron shaft 12 inches in diameter, with great cog wheels at each end, by means of which the power is applied at each side of the wheel.
The periphery of both of the great outer crowns of the great wheel is cogged, the cogs being about six inches deep and about eighteen inches apart; and the power of the engine is applied at the bottom of the wheel. Underneath the wheel, in line with the crown on each side, are two sprocket wheels nine feet in diameter, with their centers sixteen feet apart. They are connected by driving chain, which plays on the cogs of the great wheel wheels are operated by the engineer, who can turn slowly, as he may an immense endless their own cogs and as well. These sprocket engine at the will of the the wheel either way, and fast or wish. The wheel is 250 feet in diameter, 825 feet in circumference, and 30 feet wide, and is elevated 15 feet above the ground.
The great wheel is also provided with brakes. Near the north and south ends of the main shaft are two ten-feet wheels, with smooth faces, and girdled with steel bands. These bands terminate a little to one side in a large Westinghouse air brake. If therefore anything should break, and the engine fail to work, the air can be turned into the air brake, and the steel band tightened until not a wheel in the whole machine can turn. In the construction of this great wheel every conceivable danger has been calculated and provided for. Windage was a matter of the greatest importance, for, although the wheel itself is all open work, the cars present an immense resisting surface. But Mr. Rice points to the two towers, with their bases fifty feet north and south of the wheel, and bolted into twenty feet of concrete, and says that a gale of 100 miles an hour would have no effect. He says that all the frost and snow that could adhere to the wheel in winter would not affect it; and that if struck by lightning it would absorb and dissipate the thunderbolt so that it would not be felt.
It is arranged to empty and refill six cars with passengers at a time, so that there will be six stops in every revolution. Accordingly six railed platforms, of varying heights, have been provided on the north side of the wheel, and six more, corresponding with these, on the south side of it. When the wheel stops, each of the six lowest cars will have a platform at each of its doors. The passengers will step out of the south doors and other passengers will step in at the north doors. Then the next six cars will be served the same way, and the next and the next all day, and perhaps all night. It is expected that the wheel will revolve only once in every twenty minutes. Passengers will remain on board during two revolutions and pay fifty cents for their fun.
The Ferris Wheel Co. was capitalized at $600,000, and $300,000 worth of bonds were issued and sold. The final concession for the erection of the wheel was not granted until December, and all the work has been contracted for and done since then, the iron having been in the pig in January, while the scaffolding was not begun until March 20. By the terms of the concession, the company pays to the Exposition one-half of all its receipts after they have amounted to the cost of the wheel. On the day the wheel was first started, June 21, 5,000 guests were present at the inaugural ceremonies, all of whom were given a ride on the great wheel. The motion of the machinery is said to have been almost imperceptible.
Ferris Wheel Under Construction
Colored Views Published with the Endorsement and Approval of George R. Davis, Director-General of the World’s Fair Exposition. Colored by Landscape Artist, John R. Key
Chicago Tribune November 10, 1893
SUE THE FERRIS WHEEL COMPANY.
The Exposition Managers Want to Got Hold of That $75,000.
As expected the World’s Columnbian Exposition has commenced an action against the Ferris Wheel company to secure payment of percentages amounting to $75,000. The papers were filed in the Circuit Court yesterday. Under a contract made with the promoters of tho wheel scheme the Exposition company claims it was to receive half the earnings after these exceeded $300,000. Tab was kept upon the number of admissions to the wheel by the Exposition Bureau, and a claim of $150,000 was made upon the wheel company as the Exposition’s share of the earnings after the $300,000 mark had been passed. The wheel company, it is said, paid to the Exposition $75,000. and retained the remaining $75,000 on deposit in the Union National Bank. Its officers hold among other things that the Exposition company has broken its contract in closing the Midway to visitors before January next.
Ferris Wheel Car
View from the Ferris Wheel
A view from the top of the Ferris Wheel looking east.
View from the Ferris Wheel
Another view from the top of the Ferris Wheel looking east at a slightly different angle.
Photo taken 14 August 1895 of the Ferris Wheel being reassembled at 2653 N. Clark Street.
Another view of the Ferris Wheel being reassembled at 2653 N. Clark Street.
Auguste & Louis Lumière
Lumière Film Catalog no. 338
Chicago. Grande Roue
The Ferris Wheel was used in the 1904 Exposition in St. Louis. In 1906 it was destroyed and sold for scrap.
St. Louis Luisiana Purchase Exposition
St. Louis Dispatch, May 14, 1905
St. Louis Dispatch, January 4, 1906
The Ferris Wheel, the engineering marvel of two world’s fairs, on which six million have ridden, including representatives of every clime and every nation, made its last revolution and carried its last passengers at 4 p.m. yesterday.
When the skeleton of “The Roosevelt,” the last car remaining in position, had been carried slowly around the rim of the huge wheel, bearing three persons, it was taken off, ending the career of the wheel as a vehicle for sight-seeing.
Within a month it will be pulled from its bearings and roll from its framework and go crashing to the earth and be broken into junk.
The passengers on the last trip were W. G. Bennett, Superintendent of the Chicago House Wrecking Co., F. H. Burgess, representative of a Kansas City engine company, and a reporter.
It was exactly 4 o’clock when the three stepped on the platform of the car, from which the roof and sides had been removed, and took their positiions in the center.
The Last Revolution.
“Let ‘er go,” Mr. Bennett shouted to the engineer. The engine, somewhat asthmatic from long exposure to the elements, wheezed and snorted, and the wheel started with a jerk which at set the platform to swaying. The huge chains cracked on the sprockets and a moan as of protest, came from the bearings as the great axle began to revolve.
Mr. Bennett viewed the behavior of the mechanism with professional interest not unmixed with a sort of parental sentiment, for he had superintended the taking down of the wheel in Chicago and its setting up in St. Louis and knew all its parts and all its moods. He had ridden on it when it made its last revolution in Chicago and regarded it with feelings akin to affection.
He walked to the edge of the platform began to ascend and made a quick, keen survey of the structure to see that everything was all right. Since the close of the World’s Fair, over a year ago, it had not carried passengers on its grand circuit, and he wanted to be sure that the mechanism had not developed any crankiness during its long rest.
“It’s working as nicely as it ever did,” he said, with a tinge of pride in his tones, “but the engine will have a hard time pulling us around with the steam it has.”
There was a little hitch, which set the platform again to swaying, but Bennett only laughed.
“Many’s the time I’ve crawled up that rim,” he said by way of conveying that making the ascent on a teetering platform was tame business.
Car Crept Up Slowly.
Very slowly the car crept toward the summit of the wheel. Bennett stopped watching the wheel itself to take a survey of the work of destruction of the magnificent picture on which close to 2,000,000 persons looked down during the Louisiana Purchase Expositiin.
“You can see from here,” he said, “how well advanced the work of demolishing the Fair has progressed.”
The car was approaching the apex of the wheel, 265 feet from the ground. Bennett walked to the edge of of the platform again and looked down through the iron network. “This is the only place,” he said, “where you can get an adequate idea of the huge size of the structure.”
“Now we are at the top,” he said, coming back to the center of the platform,. and the three passengers in the instant took the last look over the fair and park and city and the hazy landscape beyond that will ever be taken from the dying as the day was dying and silence top of this Ferris Wheel.
The three passengers were silent as the platform swung out and down on the westward side. The old wheel was fitting.
Trip Occupied Eight Minutes.
The chains creaked dolefully over the sprockets as the platform settled into place and the great wheel came to its last stop. The trip had occupied eight minutes.
Bennett, was the superintendent again.
“Take it down,” he ordered, the men who were standing ready, and they began to displace the car.
Bennett did not look back as he walked toward his buggy and he was thoughtful as he drove back toward the office.
The platform on which the last trip was made was known as “The Roosevelt” during the Fair, because it was the one in which Alice Roosevelt and a party of her friends made the circuit of the wheel when she visited Miss Irene Catlin and saw the Fair. It was also the car in which all the marriage ceremonies, upwards of fifty, which took place on the wheel, were solemnized.
Just before the final trip was taken Mr. Bennett took four brave girls from the offices of the company on a partial revolution of the wheel. They wanted to go all the way round, but he was reluctant to take the responsibility and had to refuse them. They were Misses Gertrude Jacobs, Millie Allina, Marie Gerwe and Hilda Herminhaus.
The Ferris Wheel was to the Chicao and St. Louis fairs what the Eiffel Tower was to the Paris Exposition. It spread the fame of its designer and builder. George Washington Ferris of Chicago, to the ends of the earth.
An Engineering Wonder.
It was the crowning engineering wonder of the Chicago Exposition and was brought to the St. Louis Exposition because nothing more wonderful could be devised.
The great wheel, still in position, but now stripped of all the cars, is 250 feet in diameter. It weighs 5,000 tons. It was constructed and erected at the Chicago Fair within six months, the work of making the parts being distributed among a number of foundries. Notwithstanding that it was not ready for the opening of the Fair, there and was only operated 100 days, it was a tremendous popular and financial success.
It earned $750,000 which it had cost to to build it and earned close to 100 per cent in the investment.
At the close of the Chicago Fair a company was organized to operate it and it was removed to Lincoln Park. But it never made money there. It finally went into the hands of a receiver. The Chicago Wrecking Co. bought it for $15,000, intending to wreck it, but decided to bring it to St. Louis, which they did at a coast of $20,000.
Over three million persons rode on it at the Chicago Fair and probably a million rode on it during the years that it was at Lincoln Park. At St. Louis the number was close to 2,000,000 and it earned 20 per cent on the investment.
Altogether there has been expended on the wheel, in building and moving it, over the $1,200,000.
Carried $30,000 One Day.
On Chicago Day at the Columbian Exposition, the wheel carried 30,000 persons. St. Louis Day at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition it carried 11,000. It was capable of carrying 2,150 at a revolution and has often carried that number.
On the first revolution it ever made the passengers were Mr. and Mrs. Ferris and a party of friends, who christened it. On its last revolution in Chicago the passengers were Mr.Bennett, Abraham Harris, president of the wrecking company, and a few others.
After the close of the Fair here it was thought that the wheel would be taken to some amusement resort, but the cost of moving it precluded this, and its end will be the scrap heap.
It is to be taken down by constructing a runway, sawing the bearings and starting it with ropes and an engine. It is expected to roll out of the framework and topple over and be broken up while prostrate.
LEFT: St. Louis Dispatch, May 11, 1906
RIGHT: St. Louis Dispatch, May 12, 1906
Chicago Tribune May 12, 1906
Blown to pieces by a monster charge of dynamite. the Ferris wheel cane to an ignominious end yesterday at St. Louis, attar a varied career of thirteen years. At its ending it was unwept and unsung.
Constructed as one of the engineerIng feats of a century, the wheel first was a feature of the Chlcago world s fair In 1893.
Then for a long period of monumental and unprofitable inactivity it towered in an amusement park at North Clark street and Wrlghtwood avenue. It finally was removed to St. Louis to form for the second time the huge mechanical marvel of a great exposition.
For more than a month heavy wagons laden with the 4,600 tons of steel entering into its constructIon lumbered through Chicago’s streets.
Giant Wheel Fights for Life.
The old wheel, which bad become St. Louis’ white elephant, died hard. It required 200 pounds of dynamite to put it out of business. The first charge was exploded under the supports at the north side of the structure, wrecking its foundation and permitting the wheel to drop to the ground, a matter of but a few feet.
As the wheel settled it slowly turned, with its bottom as a support, and then after tottering a moment like a huge giant in distress, it collapsed, slowly. It did not fall to one side, as the wreckers planned—it merely crumpled up slowly. Within a few minutes it was a tangled mass of steel and iron thirty or forty feet high,
The huge axle, weighing seventy-four tons, dropped slowly with the remnants of the wheel, crushing the smaller braces and steel frame work. When the mass stopped settling it bore no resemblance to the wheel which was so familiar to Chicago and St. Louis and to 7,500,000 amusement seekers from all over the world, who, in the days when it was In operation, made the trip to the top of its heighth of 264 feet and then slowly around and down to the starting point.
Following the blast that wrecked the wheel, but which failed to shatter its foundations, came an explosion of another charge of 100 pounds of dynamite. The sticks were sunk in holes drilled in the concrete foundations that supported the pillars on the north side of the wheel.
Ferris Wheel After Demolition.
Wonder of Two Continents.
The wheel Was the wonder or two continents, by reason of its cost of $360,000, its dimensions, and Its utter uselessness. It was the rival of the Eiffel tower of Paris. Chicago was glad to get rid of it, and St. Louis is said to have witnessed its destruction with satisfaction.
George Washington Gale Ferris, president of a Pittsburg engineering firm, originated the idea of the wheel that bore his name, taking the notion from a bicycle and adapting the constructive principles of in its erection.
Ferris financed the wheel, built it in Pittsburg. erected it at the Chicago Columbian exposition, and took in $750,000 at 50 cents a ride. Then Ferris took a kaleidoscope trip to Europe. Later he lost all interest in the monster, and died on Pittsburg of tuberculosis. He was only 40 years old.
The stockholders, who had made 100 per cent profit out of the wheel in 1893, later leased the ground in North Clark street a short distance north of Wrightwood avenue, and re-erected it there. Ferris wheel park Was not a success, and the wheel was taken down again and removed to St. Louis on. June 3, 1903. The cost of taking down the wheel was $40,000. Its ruins are estimated as worth $8,000 as scrap iron.