February 14 – Happy Birthday, George Ferris

Posted on February 14, 2014

The original Ferris Wheel.
My two favorite “Ferris”s are the movie Ferris Bueller's Day Off and the amusement park rides. I bet you can tell from one glance at this page which Ferris we are talking about today!

George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., was the American engineer who created the original Ferris Wheel for the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition.

Before the wheel that made his name famous, George Ferris worked in the railroad industry and with bridge building. He started his own company to inspect metals for railroads and bridges.

Ferris went to Chicago when he heard news of the planned expo—and when he heard about a contest for engineers. Several years before the Eiffel Tower had been built for the 1889 World's Fair in Paris. The directors of the World's Columbian Exposition challenged American engineers to design a monument that would surpass the Eiffel Tower in some way (in other words, to out-Eiffel Eiffel). When Ferris showed them his idea for a giant wheel from which visitors could view the entire expo, the directors dismissed the idea as unsafe.

Ferris didn't take “no” for an answer. He got endorsements from trusted engineers who had inspected his plans and deemed the wheel safe. And he even convinced local investors to provide $400,000 toward construction costs. His persistence paid off; the directors gave Ferris the go-ahead to build his wheel.

View from a car.
This wheel carried way more people than any “Ferris wheel” I've ever ridden! It had 36 cars, each with 40 revolving chairs. Each car could seat 60 people—so the ride as a whole could seat 2,160 people at a time!

Once the fair opened, it took about 11 minutes to load up all the riders. Then the wheel turned continuously for a 9 minute ride! The riders of course had to go through another lengthy load-up period to get off of the ride; so riding the Ferris Wheel could conceivably take about half an hour!

Here are two Ferris wheels
I have tried: the mini-wheel in
the little-kid section of
Knott's Berry Farm, and the
much larger wheel at Disney's
California Adventure.
They only fit from 40 to maybe
180 riders at a time.
Still, it was worth it—people came in droves to ride the Ferris wheel at a cost of 50 cents per ride! By the time the expo had closed, about 38 THOUSAND people had had rides, and by the time the Ferris wheel was torn down in 1906, about 2.5 MILLION people had ridden on it!

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