Ferris: His Wonderland

The First Ferris Wheel, Chicago, 1893; photograph by Starks W. Lewis (Courtesy Brooklyn Museum via the Commons on Flickr)

Around this time of year in 1893, millions of people were flocking to Chicago to see the great world’s fair the city was hosting.  Formally known as the World’s Columbian Exposition, the fair belatedly commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s “discovery” of the New World.

In a bid for national and international celebrity, Chicagoans (whose young city had burned to the ground 22 years earlier) went all out in constructing the fair’s great White City: acres and acres of magnificent pavilions, illuminated at night by millions of dazzling electrical lights, and all organized around a network of waterways.

To make it even more special, the organizing committee hired a young engineer named George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., to dream up something similar to the amazing tower that George Eiffel had designed for the world’s fair in Paris in 1889.  Similar to that tower, but better.  Yet at first the organizers of Chicago’s fair were doubtful about the idea that Ferris came up with.

Ferris, 34 years old (and destined to die of typhoid fever just three years later), had already gained an impressive reputation as an engineer and bridge-builder, a reputation that sprang from his understanding of steel.  The design that he proposed to the fair’s organizers was for a gargantuan wheel, that, if built, would tower above everything and lift passengers effortlessly, treating them to aerial views from astonishing heights.

Starks W. Lewis, an amateur photographer who managed to get his camera (it would have been pretty bulky) set up on the wheel, captured the wonder of it all.  From his vantage, the intricate workmanship of the wheel itself, as well as size and design of the passenger cars, each of which was designed to hold 60 people, is clearly revealed.

Despite organizers’ fears, Ferris’s daring contraption worked perfectly.  Rising to a height of 264 feet and measuring 825 feet around, the Wheel weighed more than 2.6 million pounds.  It was powered by two 1,000-horsepower steam engines and operated reliably, unimpaired by lightning and gale-force winds.  According to Judith Adams-Volpe, writing about Ferris in the American National Biography, the wheel became the Fair’s leading attraction, the first instance of “technology being harnessed purely as a pleasure machine.”

View of the Fair from the Ferris Wheel, 1893 photograph by Starks Lewis (Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum via Flickr Commons)

What steel gave society was the capacity to rise above the earth and gain an entirely new perspective on itself.  The people who visited the Fair from all over the US could see their world as they had never seen it, from a perspective previously offered only by mountains or the occasional steeple.  In the wondrous aerial vision Ferris gave the world came a hint of the built marvels that were still to come.

Images: Photographs of and from the first Ferris Wheel
by Starks W. Lewis, 1893, courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum, from this source.

6 responses

  1. It was a great device…..ever been on the Navy Pier wheel? I am also old enough to remember the Riverview Park parachute…It was on Western Ave. and Belmont….about one mile from my place and my H.S. alma mater, Lane Tech.

    • Joe–I didn’t grow up in Chicago, so I never saw Riverview–it was gone by the time I arrived, though I do know people who cherish fond and vivid memories of it. Happily there is still time for the Navy Pier wheel. I have read that Ferris Wheels are known simply as “Chicago wheels” in other parts of the world. I like that. Susan

  2. Gee, a really cool posting! You managed to pack a lot of information into a few very concise paragraphs……That wheel must have been one of the coolest attractions to see anywhere! Ferris was a genius and the contractors equally so. The picture(s) are great.

    • Sam, yes, the wheel was amazing–I have read that in Latin America to this day they are known simply as “Chicago wheels.” Thanks for commenting–SB

  3. aw. I arrived here hoping for your take on that other Ferris-themed classic about the kid who cuts class for one glorious day in the city. I guess your thing is OK too.

    • why, thank you, goddess; i am thrilled that my work attracted the likes of you. . . . goodness knows how different life would be if i had more such readers!
      your humble servant,