We Call It The Ferris Wheel. But Is It?

We Call It The Ferris Wheel.  But Is It?

“Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels,
dizzy dancing way you feel,
As every fairy tale comes real,
I’ve looked at life that way.”
– Joni Mitchell

Pittsburgh’s own George Washington Gale Ferris invented the concept of the Ferris Wheel. We all believe that. But it’s not true. Not exactly.

George Ferris

First of all, George Ferris was from Ohio. He came to Pittsburgh by way of Gale, Ohio; Carson City, Nevada;  Riverside, CA;  and then Troy NY, where he graduated from Rensselaer Polytech Institute with  a degree in engineering.

He was only 27 years old when he decided to settle in Allegheny City with his new wife, but he had already made a name for himself with a portfolio of railroad bridges, trestles and tunnels throughout the Ohio Valley.

Pittsburgh in 1886 was the place to be for an accomplished engineer whose medium was steel. But Ferris would only spend 10 years of his life in the city of Pittsburgh.

As for inventing the concept of the Ferris Wheel, well, that’s not quite true either. Passenger-carrying wheels had been around for 200 years. William Somers took out a patent for what he called a “Roundabout”, and what we would call a “Ferris Wheel,” in 1893. You could ride one of Somers’ 50-foot wooden wheels in Asbury Park, Coney Island, and Atlantic City.

Ferris not only knew about Somers’ wheels, he rode Somers’ Roundabout in Atlantic City prior to submitting his own design for a wheel for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Daniel Burnham, director of works for the Columbian Exposition, had challenged American engineers to come up with a superstructure for the Chicago exposition to rival the Eiffel Tower built for the 1889 Paris Exposition.

Unlike Somers’ wooden wheel, Ferris’ wheel would be made of steel, and 5 times taller than Somers’ 50-foot roundabouts.  Ferris’s colleagues were skeptical that Ferris could pull off a structure as big and heavy as he imagined.. A fairy tale. It would collapse under its own weight, they said.  Nevertheless, Ferris presented his idea for a passenger wheel to the directors of the Columbia Exposition. Ok, they said, but you’re going to have to prove to us it can be done. On your own time, and with your own money.

“Ferris is a crackpot. He has wheels in his head.”

With a bevy of investors backing him, Ferris brought his fairy tale to life. He created a 268 foot, 26 story soaring fantasy. Attached to its spiderweb of black steel were 36 steel and glass cars, each fitted with 40 revolving chairs, able to hold up to 60 people. For 50 cents you could experience the ride of your life; when you reached the top, you could see forever.  Fifty cents got you two revolutions, about 20 minutes, of sheer glory.

The Ferris Wheel was a marvel. It operated flawlessly and safely for the entire run of the Exposition. Previously only known in engineering circles, Ferris became a superstar to the more than 1.4 million people who attended the Expo, and a household name to millions more who had only heard of him and his wheel through newspaper accounts.

The backstory of this triumph was a little darker. Remember Somers and his roundabout? Somers sued Ferris for patent infringement. But we don’t call them Somers Wheels; we call them Ferris Wheels. That’ll tell you who won the lawsuit.

But other lawsuits, and disputes over Ferris’ cut of the Wheel profits at the Exposition, drained Ferris’ finances. He lost his businesses.  He was forced to declare bankruptcy.  His wife left him and moved back to Ohio. Destitute and ill, Ferris was 37 years old when he died, in Pittsburgh, on November 26, 1897, of typhoid.

The original Ferris Wheel was eventually moved to St Louis where an additional 3 million people thrilled to its excitement at the 1903 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. After the Exposition closed, however, people considered the Wheel an eyesore. The original Ferris Wheel finally met an inglorious end when 200 tons of dynamite reduced it to scrap metal in 1906.

But the fame of the Wheel and the man whose name it carries, has never died. To this day, every time we see a ginormous wheel with attached cars, no matter what the world names them – the London Eye, the High Roller in Las Vegas, The Singapore Flyer — we know them as Ferris Wheels—along with moons and Junes, a fairy tale come real.  

Pam Gianni

Pamela Gianni, MD is a native Pittsburgher and second generation Italo-American, who loves all things Pittsburgh. She joined DOORS OPEN Pittsburgh as a volunteer tour curator, and now virtual storyteller, in 2019. In her day job, she’s a Medical Consultant to the Social Security Administration.

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