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The Ferris Wheel Chicago
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© Christine Till
The first Ferris Wheel was designed by George W. Ferris, a bridge-builder from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He built the Ferris Wheel for the 1893 World's Fair, which was held in Chicago to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landing in America. The Chicago Fair's organizers wanted something that would rival the Eiffel Tower.
Finding a suitable design proved difficult: Architect Daniel H. Burnham, who was in charge of selecting the project for the Chicago World's Fair, complained at an engineer's banquet in 1891 about having found nothing that "met the expectations of the people". Among the audience was George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., owner of a firm that tested iron and steel. He had an inspiration and scribbled the design for the Ferris Wheel on a napkin during the dinner.
The task was monumental. A structure of this size and shape had never been built, which meant that the science behind it had not yet been tested. In fact, the Saturday Afternoon Club, a group of engineers and architects of the time, called him a fool and proclaimed that he would never be able to build the giant wheel. He obtained permission in spite of this and began building. Ferris' wheel was considered an engineering wonder: two 140-foot steel towers supported the wheel; they were connected by a 45-foot axle, the largest single piece of forged steel ever made up until that time. The wheel section had a diameter of 250 feet and a circumference of 825 feet. Two 1000-horsepower reversible engines powered the ride. Thirty-six wooden cars held up to sixty riders each. The ride cost fifty cents and EARNED $726,805.50 during the World's Fair, which turned into a profit of $395,000 for the company that commissioned it.
After the expo, the wheel was moved to a new site in Chicago. However, it did not bring in the patrons they expected, and the company quickly went bankrupt. The wheel was sold at auction and transported piece by piece to St. Louis for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Here it brought in even less money, and on May 11, 1906, it was blown up. However, its legacy lives today in modern-day Ferris wheels. Today's wheels are not powered by steam, but the structure and turning mechanism are quite similar to the first one.
The Ferris wheel, once the laughingstock of engineers, stands today as the icon of Navy Pier on Chicago's Lake Michigan coast, and it owes its history to one brave engineer who was willing to think outside of the proverbial box. His name lives on, in the "observation wheels" that can now be found in virtually every amusement park in the world.
February 26th, 2013
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