The Ferris Wheel Exposition

It’s a rainbow ferris wheel!

The Ferris Wheel Exposition

The Ferris Wheel Exposition

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The Ferris Wheel Exposition

Do you know when the ferris wheel was invented?

The Ferris Wheel Exposition

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The Ferris Wheel Exposition

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The Ferris Wheel Exposition


The Ferris Wheel Exposition

In Paris on the Champ de Mars, at the heart of the Exposition Universelle of 1889, stood a tower of iron that rose 300m into the sky, higher by far than any man-made structure on earth. The tower not only assured the eternal fame of its designer, Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, but also offered graphic proof that France had edged out the United States for dominance in the realm of iron and steel, despite the Brooklyn Bridge, the Horseshoe Curve, and other undeniable accomplishments of American engineers. Overall, the Exposition Universelle was so big and glamorous and so exotic that visitors came away believing no exposition could surpass it.

The Ferris Wheel Exposition

The United States had only itself to blame for this perception. In Paris America had made a half-hearted effort to show off its artistic, industrial, and scientific talent. “We shall be ranked among those nations who have shown themselves careless of appearances,” wrote the Chicago Tribune’s Paris correspondent on May 13, 1889. Other nations, he wrote, had mounted exhibits of dignity and style, while American exhibitors erected a mélange of pavilions and kiosks with no artistic guidance and no uniform plan. “The result is a sad jumble of shops, booths, and bazaars often unpleasing in themselves and incongruous when taken together.”

In contrast, France had done everything it could to ensure that its glory overwhelmed everyone. “Other nations are not rivals,” the correspondent wrote, “they are foils to France, and the poverty of their displays sets off, as it was meant to do, the fullness of France, its richness and its splendor.” Even Eiffel’s tower, forecast by wishful Americans to be a monstrosity that would disfigure forever the comely landscape of Paris, turned out to possess unexpected élan, with a sweeping base and tapered shaft that evoked the trail of a skyrocket.

The Ferris Wheel Exposition

This humiliation could not be allowed to stand! America’s pride in its growing power and international stature had fanned patriotism to a new intensity. The nation needed an opportunity to top the French, in particular to “out-Eiffel Eiffel”. Suddenly the idea of hosting a great exposition to commemorate Columbus’s discovery of the New World became irresistible.

In February 1890, Congress voted to give the World’s Columbian Exposition to Chicago. The final fair bill was signed in April by President Benjamin Harrison and established a Dedication Day for October 12, 1892, to honor the moment four hundred years earlier when Columbus had first sighted the New World. The formal opening, however, would not occur until May 1, 1893, to give Chicago more time to prepare. That left just 36 months. The first 9 months were spent by the Exposition’s board of directors squabbling about the location for the fair. They finally agreed on a site in November 1890.

While the rest of the construction for the fair made slow and difficult progress, at the beginning of 1892, there was still no proposal to out-Eiffel Eiffel.

The absence of an Eiffel challenger continued to frustrate Daniel Burnham, the chief of construction. Proposals got more and more bizarre. One visionary put forth a tower 450m tall but made entirely of logs, with a cabin at the top for shelter and refreshment. The cabin was to be a log cabin. If an engineer capable of besting Eiffel did not step forward soon, Burnham knew, there simply would not be enough time left to build anything worthy of the fair. Somehow he needed to rouse the engineers of America. The opportunity came with an invitation to give a talk to the Saturday Afternoon Club, a group of engineers who had begun meeting on Saturdays at a downtown restaurant to discuss the construction challenges of the fair. There was the usual meal in multiple courses, with wine, cigars, coffee, and cognac.

At one table sat a thirty-three-year-old engineer from Pittsburgh who ran a steel-inspection company that had branch offices in New York and Chicago and that already possessed the exposition contract to inspect the steel used in the fair’s buildings. He had an angular face, black hair, a black mustache, and dark eyes, the kind of looks soon to be coveted by an industry that Thomas Edison was just then bringing to life. He “was eminently engaging and social and he had a keen sense of humor,” his partners wrote. “In all gatherings he at once became the center of attraction, having a ready command of language and a constant fund of amusing anecdotes and experiences.”

Like the other members of the Saturday Afternoon Club, he expected to hear Burnham discuss the challenges of building an entire city on such a short schedule, but Burnham surprised him. After asserting that “the architects of America had covered themselves with glory” through their exposition designs, Burnham rebuked the nation’s civil engineers for failing to rise to the same level of brilliance. The engineers, Burnham charged, “had contributed little or nothing either in the way of originating novel features or of showing the possibilities of modern engineering practice in America.” A tremor of displeasure rolled through the room. “Some distinctive feature is needed,” Burnham continued, “something to take the relative position in the World’s Columbian Exposition that was filled by the Eiffel Tower at the Paris Exposition.” But not a tower, he said. Towers were not original. Eiffel had built a tower already. “Mere bigness” wasn’t enough either. “Something novel, original, daring and unique must be designed and built if American engineers are to retain their prestige and standing.”

Some of the engineers took offense; others acknowledged that Burnham had a point. The engineer from Pittsburgh felt himself “cut to the quick by the truth of these remarks.” As he sat there among his peers, an idea came to him “like an inspiration”. It arrived not as some half-formed impulse, he said, but rich in detail. He could see it and touch it, hear it as it moved through the sky. There was not much time left, but if he acted quickly to produce drawings and managed to convince the fair’s Ways and Means Committee of the idea’s feasibility, he believed the exposition could indeed out-Eiffel Eiffel. And if what happened to Eiffel happened to him, his fortune would be assured. Burnham thought the thing proposed by the young engineer just did not seem feasible. “Too fragile,” Burnham told him. “The public would be afraid.”

In Pittsburgh the young steel engineer became more convinced than ever that his challenge to the Eiffel Tower could succeed. He asked a partner in his inspection firm, W. F. Gronau, to calculate the novel forces that would play among the components of his structure. In engineering parlance, it embodied little “dead load,” the static weight of immobile masses of brick and steel. Nearly all of it was “live load ,” meaning weight that changes over time, as when a train passes over a bridge. “I had no precedent,” Gronau said. After three weeks of intense work, however, he came up with detailed specifications. The numbers were persuasive, even to Burnham. In June, the Ways and Means Committee agreed that the thing should be built. They granted a concession. The next day the committee revoked it — second thoughts, after a night spent dreaming of freak winds and shrieking steel and two thousand lives gone in a wink. One member of the committee now called it a “monstrosity”. A chorus of engineers chanted that the thing could not be built, at least not with any margin of safety. Its young designer still did not concede defeat, however. He spent $25,000 on drawings and additional specifications and used them to recruit a cadre of investors that included two prominent engineers, Robert Hunt, head of a major Chicago firm, and Andrew Onderdonk, famous for helping construct the Canadian Pacific Railway. Soon he sensed a change. The engineer readied himself for a third try.

In late November 1892 (after the 12 October Dedication Day of the fair), the young Pittsburgh engineer once again put his proposal for out-Eiffeling Eiffel before the Ways and Means Committee. This time in addition to drawings and specifications he included a list of investors, the names of the prominent men on his board, and proof that he had raised enough money to finance the project to completion. On December 16, 1892, the committee granted him a concession to build his structure in the Midway Plaisance. This time the decision held. He needed an engineer willing to go to Chicago and supervise the construction effort and thought he knew just the man: Luther V. Rice, assistant engineer of the Union Depot & Tunnel Company, St. Louis. His letter to Rice began, “I have on hand a great project for the World’s Fair in Chicago. I am going to build a vertically revolving wheel 250′ in dia.” Nowhere in this letter, however, did he reveal the true dimension of his vision: that this wheel would carry thirty-six cars, each about the size of a Pullman, each holding sixty people and equipped with its own lunch counter, and how when filled to capacity the wheel would propel 2,160 people at a time 90m into the sky over Jackson Park, a bit higher than the crown of the now six-year-old Statue of Liberty. He told Rice, “I want you at once if you can come.” He signed the letter: George Washington Gale Ferris.

The Ferris Wheel Exposition

At the start of January 1893 the weather turned cold and stayed cold, the temperature falling to 30 degC below zero. George Ferris fought the cold with dynamite, the only efficient way to penetrate the one meter deep crust of frozen earth that now covered Jackson Park. Once opened, the ground still posed problems. Just beneath the crust lay a 6m stratum of the same quicksand Chicago builders always confronted, only now it was ice-cold and a torment to workers. The men used jets of live steam to thaw dirt and prevent newly poured cement from freezing. They drove timber piles to hard-pan 10m underground. On top of these they laid a grillage of steel, then filled it with cement. To keep the excavated chambers as dry as possible, they ran pumps twenty-four hours a day. They repeated the process for each of the eight 42m towers that would support the Ferris Wheel’s giant axle.

The Ferris Wheel Exposition

At first, Ferris’s main worry was whether he could acquire enough steel to build his machine. He realized, however, that he had an advantage over anyone else trying to place a new order. Through his steel-inspection company he knew most of the nation’s steel executives and the products they made. He was able to pull in favors and spread his orders among many different companies. “No one shop could begin to do all the work, therefore contracts were let to a dozen different firms, each being chosen because of some peculiar fitness for the work entrusted to it,” according to an account by Ferris’s company. Ferris also commanded a legion of inspectors who evaluated the quality of each component as it emerged from each mill. This proved to be a vital benefit since the wheel was a complex assemblage of 100,000 parts that ranged in size from small bolts to the giant axle, which at the time of its manufacture by Bethlehem Steel was the largest one-piece casting ever made. “Absolute precision was necessary, as few of the parts could be put together until they were upon the ground and an error of the smallest fraction of an inch might be fatal.”

The wheel Ferris envisioned actually consisted of two wheels spaced 9m apart on the axle. What had frightened Burnham, at first, was the apparent insubstantiality of the design. Each wheel was essentially a gigantic bicycle wheel. Slender iron rods just 6.5cm thick and 2.5m long linked the rim, or felloe, of each wheel to a “spider” affixed to the axle. Struts and diagonal rods ran between the two wheels to stiffen the assembly and give it the strength of a railroad bridge. A chain weighing 9 tonnes connected a sprocket on the axle to sprockets driven by twin thousand-horsepower steam engines. For aesthetic reasons the boilers were to be located 200m outside the Midway, the steam shunted to the engines through 25cm underground pipes. This, at least, is how it looked on paper. Just digging and installing the foundation, however, had proven more difficult than Ferris and Rice had expected, and they knew that far greater hurdles lay ahead, foremost among them the challenge of raising that huge axle to its mount atop the eight towers. Together with its fittings, the axle weighed 64 tonnes. Nothing that heavy had ever been lifted before, let alone to such a height.

The Ferris Wheel Exposition

On May 1, 1893, the Opening Day of the fair, 23 gleaming black carriages formed the opening procession. At the center of the Midway, the procession veered around the woefully incomplete Ferris Wheel, which Burnham eyed with displeasure. It was a half-moon of steel encased in a skyscraper of wooden falsework.

The early visitors returned to their homes and reported to friends and family that the fair, though incomplete, was far grander and more powerful than they had been led to expect. Reporters from far-flung cities wired the same observation back to their editors, and stories of delight and awe began to percolate through the most remote towns. In fields, dells, and hollows, families terrified by what they read in the papers each day about the collapsing national economy nonetheless now began to think about Chicago. The trip would be expensive, but it was starting to look more and more worthwhile. Even necessary. If only Mr. Ferris would get busy and finish that big wheel.

In the first week of June 1893, Ferris’s men began prying the last timbers and planks from the falsework that had encased and supported the big wheel during its assembly. The rim arced through the sky at a height of 80 meters, as high as the topmost occupied floor in Burnham’s Masonic Temple, the city’s tallest skyscraper. None of the thirty-six cars had been hung — they stood on the ground — but the wheel itself was ready for its first rotation. Standing by itself, unbraced, Ferris’s wheel looked dangerously fragile. “It is impossible for the non-mechanical mind to understand how such a Brobdingnag continues to keep itself erect,” wrote Julian Hawthorne; “it has no visible means of support — none that appear adequate. The spokes look like cobwebs; they are after the fashion of those on the newest make of bicycles.”

On Thursday, June 8, Luther Rice signaled the firemen at the big steam boilers 200m away on Lexington Avenue, outside the Midway, to build steam and fill the 25cm underground mains. Once the boilers reached suitable pressure, Rice nodded to an engineer in the pit under the wheel, and steam whooshed into the pistons of its twin thousand-horsepower engines. The drive sprockets turned smoothly and quietly. Rice ordered the engine stopped. Next, workers attached the tenton chain to the sprockets and to a receiving sprocket at the wheel. Rice sent a telegram to Ferris at his office in the Hamilton Building in Pittsburgh: “Engines have steam on and are working satisfactorily. Sprocket chain connected up and are ready to turn wheel.” Ferris was unable to go to Chicago himself but sent his partner W. F. Gronau to supervise the first turn.

In the early morning of Friday, June 9, as his train passed through the South Side, Gronau saw how the great wheel towered over everything in its vicinity, just as Eiffel’s creation did in Paris. The exclamations of fellow passengers as to the wheel’s size and apparent fragility filled him with a mixture of pride and anxiety. Ferris, himself fed up with construction delays and Burnham’s pestering, had told Gronau to turn the wheel or tear it off the tower.

Last-minute adjustments and inspections took up most of Friday, but just before dusk Rice told Gronau that everything appeared to be ready. “I did not trust myself to speak,” Gronau said, “so merely nodded to start.” He was anxious to see if the wheel worked, but at the same time “would gladly have assented to postpone the trial”. Nothing remained but to admit steam and see what happened. Never had anyone built such a gigantic wheel. That it would turn without crushing its bearings and rotate smoothly and true were engineering hopes supported only by calculations that reflected known qualities of iron and steel. No structure ever had been subjected to the unique stresses that would come to bear upon and within the wheel once in motion.

Ferris’s pretty wife, Margaret, stood nearby, flushed with excitement. Gronau believed she was experiencing the same magnitude of mental strain as he. “Suddenly I was aroused from these thoughts by a most horrible noise,” he said. A growl tore through the sky and caused everyone in the vicinity to halt and stare at the wheel. “Looking up,” Gronau said, “I saw the wheel move slowly. What can be the matter! What is this horrible noise!” Gronau ran to Rice, who stood in the engine pit monitoring pressures and the play of shafts and shunts. Gronau expected to see Rice hurriedly trying to shut down the engine, but Rice looked unconcerned. Rice explained that he had merely tested the wheel’s braking system, which consisted of a band of steel wrapped around the axle. The test alone had caused the wheel to move one eighth of its circumference. The noise, Rice said, was only the sound of rust being scraped off the band.

The engineer in the pit released the brake and engaged the drive gears. The sprockets began to turn, the chain to advance. The crowd was silent. As the wheel began to turn, loose nuts and bolts and a couple of wrenches rained from its hub and spokes. The wheel had consumed 13 tonnes of bolts in its assembly; someone was bound to forget something. The workmen who had risked their lives building the wheel now risked them again and climbed aboard the moving frame. “No carriages were as yet placed in position,” Gronau said, “but this did not deter the men, for they clambered among the spokes and sat upon the crown of the wheel as easy as I am sitting in this chair.”

The wheel needed twenty minutes for a single revolution. Only when it had completed its first full turn did Gronau feel the test had been successful, at which point he said, “I could have yelled out loud for joy.” Mrs. Ferris shook his hand. The crowd cheered. Rice telegraphed Ferris, who had been waiting all day for word of the test, his anxiety rising with each hour. The Pittsburgh office of Western Union received the cable at 9:10pm, and a blue-suited messenger raced through the cool spring night to bring it to Ferris. Rice had written: “The last coupling and final adjustment was made and steam turned on at six o’clock this evening one complete revolution of the big wheel was made everything working satisfactory twenty minutes time was taken for the revolution — I congratulate you upon it complete success midway is wildly enthusiastic.”

The next day, Saturday, June 10, Ferris cabled Rice, “Your telegram stating that first revolution of wheel had been made last night at six o’clock and that same was successful in every way has caused great joy in this entire camp. I wish to congratulate you in all respects in this matter and ask that you rush the putting in of cars working day and night — if you can’t put the cars in at night, babbitt the car bearings at night so as to keep ahead.” By “babbitt” he no doubt meant that Rice should install the metal casings in which the bearings were to sit. The wheel had worked , but Ferris, Gronau, and Rice all knew that far more important tests lay ahead. Beginning that Saturday workers would begin hanging cars, thus placing upon the wheel its first serious stresses. Each of the thirty-six cars weighed thirteen tons, for a total of just under 545 tonnes. And that did not include the 91 tonnes of additional live load that would be added as passengers filled the cars. On Saturday, soon after receiving Ferris’s congratulatory telegram, Rice cabled back that in fact the first car already had been hung.

As Ferris’ men became accustomed to handling the big cars, the process of attaching them to the wheel accelerated. By Sunday evening, June 11, six cars had been hung. Now it was time for the first test with passengers, and the weather could not have been better. The sun was gold, the sky a darkling blue in the east. Mrs. Ferris insisted on being aboard for the first ride, despite Gronau’s attempts to dissuade her. Gronau inspected the wheel to make sure the car would swing without obstruction. The engineer in the pit started the engines and rotated the wheel to bring the test car to one of the platforms.

The Ferris Wheel Exposition

“I did not enter the carriage with the easiest feeling at heart,” Gronau said. “I felt squeamish; yet I could not refuse to take the trip. So I put on a bold face and walked into the car.” Luther Rice joined them, as did two draftsmen and the city of Chicago’s former bridge engineer, W. C. Hughes. His wife and daughter also stepped aboard. The car swung gently as the passengers took positions within the car. Glass had not yet been installed in its generous windows, nor the iron grill that would cover the glass. As soon as the last passenger had entered, Rice casually nodded to the engineer, and the wheel began to move. Instinctively everyone reached for posts and sills to keep themselves steady. As the wheel turned, the car pivoted on the trunnions that both connected it to the frame and kept it level. “Owing to our car not having made a trip,” Gronau said, “the trunnions stuck slightly in their bearings and a crunching noise resulted, which in the condition of our nerves was not pleasant to hear.” The car traveled a bit higher, then unexpectedly stopped, raising the question of how everyone aboard would get down if the wheel could not be restarted.

Rice and Gronau stepped to the unglazed windows to investigate. They looked down over the sill and discovered the problem: The fast-growing crowd of spectators, emboldened by seeing passengers in the first car, had leaped into the next car, ignoring shouts to stay back. Fearful that someone would be hurt or killed, the engineer had stopped the wheel and allowed the passengers to board. Gronau estimated that one hundred people now occupied the car below. No one sought to kick them out. The wheel again began to move. Ferris had created more than simply an engineering novelty. Like the inventors of the elevator, he had conjured an entirely new physical sensation.

Gronau’s first reaction — soon to change — was disappointment. He had expected to feel something like what he felt when riding a fast elevator, but here he found that if he looked straight ahead he felt almost nothing. Gronau stationed himself at one end of the car to better observe its behavior and the movement of the wheel. When he looked out the side of the car into the passing web of spokes, the car’s rapid ascent became apparent: “…it seemed as if every thing was dropping away from us, and the car was still. Standing at the side of the car and looking into the network of iron rods multiplied the peculiar sensation…” He advised the others that if they had weak stomachs, they should not do likewise. When the car reached its highest point, 80m above the ground, Mrs. Ferris climbed onto a chair and cheered, raising a roar in the following car and on the ground.

Soon, however, the passengers became silent. The novelty of the sensation wore off, and the true power of the experience became apparent. “It was a most beautiful sight one obtains in the descent of the car, for then the whole fair grounds is laid before you,”Gronau said. “The view is so grand that all timidity left me and my watch on the movement of the car was abandoned.” The sun had begun its own descent and now cast an orange light over the shorescape. “The harbor was dotted with vessels of every description, which appeared mere specks from our exalted position, and the reflected rays of the beautiful sunset cast a gleam upon the surrounding scenery, making a picture lovely to behold.” The entire park came into view as an intricate landscape of color, texture, and motion. Lapis lagoons. Electric launches trailing veils of diamond. Carmine blossoms winking from bulrush and flag. “The sight is so inspiring that all conversation stopped, and all were lost in admiration of this grand sight. The equal of it I have never seen, and I doubt very much if I shall again.”

This reverie was broken as more bolts and nuts bounded down the superstructure onto the car’s roof. Spectators still managed to get past the guards and into the following cars, but now Gronau and Rice shrugged it off. The engineer in the pit kept the wheel running until the failing light made continued operation a danger, but even then thrill-seekers clamored for a chance. Finally Rice informed those who had shoved their way into the cars that if they remained he would run them to the top of the wheel and leave them there overnight. “This,” Gronau said, “had the desired effect.” Immediately after leaving the car, Mrs. Ferris telegraphed her husband details of the success. He cabled back, “God bless you my dear.”

The next day, Monday, June 12, Rice cabled Ferris, “Six more cars hung today. People are wild to ride on wheel & extra force of guards is required to keep them out.”On Tuesday the total of cars hung reached twenty-one, with only fifteen more to add. Burnham, obsessing as always over details, sought to decree the style and location of a fence for the wheel. He wanted an open, perforated fence, Ferris wanted it closed. Ferris was fed up with Burnham’s pressure and aesthetic interference. He cabled Luther Rice, “…Burnham nor anyone else has any right to dictate whether we shall have a closed or open fence, any more than from an artistic standpoint.” Ferris prevailed. The eventual fence was a closed one.

The Ferris Wheel Exposition

At last all the cars were hung and the wheel was ready for its first paying passengers. Rice wanted to begin accepting riders on Sunday, June 18, two days earlier than planned, but now with the wheel about to experience its greatest test — a full load of paying passengers, including entire families — Ferris’s board of directors urged him to hold off one more day. They cabled Ferris, “Unwise to open wheel to public until opening day because of incompleteness and danger of accidents.” Ferris accepted their directive but with reluctance. Shortly before he left for Chicago , he cabled Rice, “If the board of directors have decided not to run until Wednesday you may carry out their wishes.”

At 3:30pm on Wednesday, June 21, 1893, fifty-one days late, George Washington Gale Ferris took a seat on the speakers’platform built at the base of his wheel. The forty-piece Iowa State Marching Band already had boarded one of the cars and now played “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” Mayor Harrison joined Ferris on the platform, as did Bertha Palmer, the entire Chicago city council, and an assortment of fair officials. Burnham apparently was not present. The cars were fully glazed, and wire grills had been placed over all the windows so that, as one reporter put it, “No crank will have an opportunity to commit suicide from this wheel, no hysterical woman shall jump from a window.” Conductors trained to soothe riders who were afraid of heights stood in handsome uniforms at each car’s door. The band quieted, the wheel stopped. Speeches followed.

Ferris was last to take the podium and happily assured the audience that the man condemned for having “wheels in his head” had gotten them out of his head and into the heart of the Midway Plaisance. He attributed the success of the enterprise to his wife, Margaret, who stood behind him on the platform. He dedicated the wheel to the engineers of America. Mrs. Ferris gave him a gold whistle, then she and Ferris and the other dignitaries climbed into the first car. Harrison wore his black slouch hat. When Ferris blew the whistle, the Iowa State band launched into “America,” and the wheel again began to turn. The group made several circuits, sipping champagne and smoking cigars, then exited the wheel to the cheers of the crowd that now thronged its base.

The first paying passengers stepped aboard. The wheel continued rolling with stops only for loading and unloading until eleven o’clock that night. Even with every car full, the wheel never faltered, its bearings never groaned. The Ferris Company was not shy about promoting its founder’s accomplishment. In an illustrated pamphlet called the “Ferris Wheel Souvenir” the company wrote: “Built in the face of every obstacle, it is an achievement which reflects so much credit upon the inventor, that were Mr. Ferris the subject of a Monarchy, instead of a citizen of a great Republic, his honest heart would throb beneath a breast laden with the decorations of royalty.”

The Ferris Wheel Exposition

Ferris could not resist tweaking the Exposition Company for not granting him a concession sooner than it did. “Its failure to appreciate its importance, ”the souvenir said, “has cost the Exposition Company many thousands of dollars.” This was an understatement. Had the Exposition Company stood by its original June 1892 concession rather than waiting until nearly six months later, the wheel would have been ready for the fair’s May 1 opening. Not only did the exposition lose its 50 percent share of the wheel’s revenue for those fifty-one days — it lost the boost in overall admission that the wheel likely would have generated and that Burnham so desperately wanted. Instead it had stood for that month and a half as a vivid advertisement of the fair’s incomplete condition. Safety fears lingered, and Ferris did what he could to ease them.

The souvenir pamphlet noted that even a full load of passengers had “no more effect on the movements or the speed than if they were so many flies” — an oddly ungracious allusion. The pamphlet added, “In the construction of this great wheel, every conceivable danger has been calculated and provided for.” But Ferris and Gronau had done their jobs too well. The design was so elegant, so adept at exploiting the strength of thin strands of steel, that the wheel appeared incapable of withstanding the stresses placed upon it. The wheel may not have been unsafe, but it looked unsafe. “In truth, it seems too light,”a reporter observed. “One fears the slender rods which must support the whole enormous weight are too puny to fulfill their office. One cannot avoid the thought of what would happen if a high wind should come sweeping across the prairie and attack the structure broadside. Would the thin rods be sufficient to sustain not only the enormous weight of the structure and that of the 2,000 passengers who might chance to be in the cars, but the pressure of the wind as well?” In three weeks that question would find an answer.

The Ferris Wheel Exposition

The Ferris Wheel quickly became the most popular attraction of the exposition. Thousands rode it every day. In the week beginning July 3, Ferris sold 61,395 tickets. The Exposition Company took about half, leaving Ferris an operating profit for that one week of $13,948 (equivalent today to about $400,000). There were still questions about the wheel’s safety, and unfounded stories circulated about suicides and accidents, including one that alleged that a frightened pug had leaped to its death from one of the car’s windows. Not true, the Ferris Company said; the story was the concoction of a reporter “short on news and long on invention.” If not for the wheel’s windows and iron grates, however, its record might have been different.

On one ride a latent terror of heights suddenly overwhelmed an otherwise peaceful man named Wherritt. He was fine until the car began to move. As it rose, he began to feel ill and nearly fainted. There was no way to signal the engineer below to stop the wheel. Wherritt staggered in panic from one end of the car to the other, driving passengers before him “like scared sheep,” according to one account. He began throwing himself at the walls of the car with such power that he managed to bend some of the protective iron. The conductor and several male passengers tried to subdue him, but he shook them off and raced for the door. In accord with the wheel’s operating procedures, the conductor had locked the door at the start of the ride. Wherritt shook it and broke its glass but could not get it open. As the car entered its descent, Wherritt became calmer and laughed and sobbed with relief — until he realized the wheel was not going to stop. It always made two full revolutions. Wherritt again went wild, and again the conductor and his allies subdued him, but they were growing tired. They feared what might happen if Wherritt escaped them. Structurally the car was sound, but its walls, windows, and doors had been designed merely to discourage attempts at self-destruction, not to resist a human pile driver. Already Wherritt had broken glass and bent iron. A woman stepped up and unfastened her skirt. To the astonishment of all aboard, she slipped the skirt off and threw it over Wherritt’s head, then held it in place while murmuring gentle assurances. The effect was immediate. Wherritt became “as quiet as an ostrich.” A woman disrobing in public, a man with a skirt over his head — the marvels of the fair seemed endless.

The Ferris Wheel Exposition

On Sunday, July 9, a day of heat and stillness, the Ferris Wheel became one of the most sought-after places to be, as did the basket of the Midway’s captive balloon. The balloon, named Chicago, was filled with 2800 cubic meters of hydrogen and controlled by a tether connected to a winch. By three o’clock that afternoon it had made thirty-five trips aloft, to an altitude of 300 meters. As far as the concession’s German aerialist was concerned, the day had been a perfect one for ascensions, so still, he estimated, that a plumb line dropped from the basket would have touched the winch directly below. At three o’clock, however, the manager of the concession, G. F. Morgan, checked his instruments and noted a sudden decline in barometric pressure, evidence that a storm was forming. He halted the sale of new tickets and ordered his men to reel in the balloon.

The Ferris Wheel Exposition

The operators of the Ferris Wheel, he saw, did not take equivalent precautions. The wheel continued to turn. Clouds gathered, the sky purpled, and a breeze rose from the northwest. The sky sagged toward the ground and a small funnel cloud appeared, which began wobbling south along the lakeshore, toward the fair. The Ferris Wheel was full of passengers, who watched with mounting concern as the funnel did its own danse du ventre across Jackson Park directly toward the Midway. The wind blew so hard the rain drops appeared to be flowing almost horizontal instead of vertical. The wheel continued to turn, however, as if no wind were blowing. Passengers felt only a slight vibration. An engineer estimated the wind deflected the wheel to one side by only 4cm. The riders watched as the wind gripped the adjacent captive balloon and tore it from the men holding it down and briefly yanked manager Morgan into the sky. The wind pummeled the balloon as if it were an inverted punching bag, then tore it to pieces and cast shreds of its nine thousand yards of silk as far as half a mile away. Morgan took the disaster calmly. “I got some pleasure out of watching the storm come up,” he said, “and it was a sight of a lifetime to see the balloon go to pieces, even if it was a costly bit of sightseeing for the people who own stock in the company”.

Throughout October attendance at the fair rose sharply as more and more people realized that the time left to see the White City was running short. On October 22 paid attendance totaled 138,011. Just two days later it reached 244,127. Twenty thousand people a day now rode the Ferris Wheel, 80 percent more than at the start of the month. Everyone hoped attendance would continue rising and that the number of people drawn to the closing ceremony of October 30 would break the record set on Chicago Day.

The Ferris Wheel cost 50 cents to ride — twice the price of a ticket to the fair itself. It remained in place until the spring of 1894, when George Ferris dismantled it and reassembled it on Chicago’s North Side, where it remained in operation for 10 years before it was sold to the organizers of the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, Missouri.

On November 17, 1896, George Ferris was taken to Mercy Hospital in Pittsburgh, where he died five days later, apparently of typhoid fever. He was thirty-seven years old. In a eulogy two friends said Ferris had “miscalculated his powers of endurance, and he died a martyr to his ambition for fame and prominence.”

In 1903 the Chicago House Wrecking Company bought the wheel at auction for $8,150, then reassembled it at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. On May 11, 1906, the wrecking company dynamited the wheel, for scrap. The first hundred-pound charge was supposed to cut the wheel loose from its supports and topple it onto its side. Instead the wheel began a slow turn, as if seeking one last roll through the sky. It crumpled under its own weight into a mountain of bent steel.

The Ferris Wheel Exposition

We’ve been on the Ferris Wheel in Singapore and London and at Disneyland!

The Ferris Wheel Exposition

Singapore 2014

Flying High

A Magical Day at Disneyland

A Magical Day at Disneyland

Extracts from “Devil in the White City”, by Erik Larson. Great book! Leonardo DiCaprio will star in the long-in-development movie based on the book, with Martin Scorsese directing for Paramount. The movie is expected to be released in 2017.

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