In late 1890, Daniel Burnham, the eminent architect charged with turning a boggy square mile of Chicago into a world-dazzling showpiece, assembled an all-star team of designers and gave them one directive: “Make no little plans.” Burnham was laboring in the shadow of a landmark erected the year before in Paris, an elegant wrought iron structure rising a thousand feet into the air.
But nobody in the States had an answer for the Eiffel Tower. Oh, there were proposals: a tower garlanded with rails to distant cities, enabling visitors to toboggan home; another tower from whose top guests would be pushed off in cars attached to thick rubber bands, a forerunner of bungee jumping. Eiffel himself proposed an idea: a bigger tower. Merci, mais non. As plans for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago took shape, there was a void where its exclamation point was meant to stand.Burnham spoke before a group of engineers employed on the project and chided them for their failure of imagination. To avoid humiliation, he said, they needed to come up with “something novel, original, daring and unique.” One of their number, George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., a 33-year-old engineer from Pittsburgh whose company was charged with inspecting the steel used by the fair, was struck by a brainstorm and quickly sketched a huge revolving steel wheel. After adding specifications, he shared the idea with Burnham, who balked at the slender rods that would carry people to a height taller than the recently opened Statue of Liberty. “Too fragile,” he said.
Ferris was hardly the first to imagine such a wheel. In fact, a carpenter named William Somers was building 50-foot wooden wheels at Asbury Park, Atlantic City and Coney Island; a roundabout, he called it, and he’d even patented his design. But Ferris had not only been challenged to think big; the huge attendance expected at the fair inspired him to bet big. He spent $25,000 of his own money on safety studies, hired more engineers, recruited investors. On December 16, 1892, his wheel was chosen to answer Eiffel. It measured 250 feet in diameter, and carried 36 cars, each capable of holding 60 people.
More than 100,000 parts went into Ferris’ wheel, notably an 89,320-pound axle that had to be hoisted onto two towers 140 feet in the air. Launched on June 21, 1893, it was a glorious success. Over the next 19 weeks, more than 1.4 million people paid 50 cents for a 20-minute ride and access to an aerial panorama few had ever beheld. “It is an indescribable sensation,” wrote a reporter named Robert Graves, “that of revolving through such a vast orbit in a bird cage.”
But when the fair gates closed, Ferris became immersed in a tangle of wheel-related lawsuits about debts he owed suppliers and that the fair owed him. In 1896, bankrupt and suffering from typhoid fever, he died at age 37. A wrecking company bought the wheel and sold it to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. Two years later, it was dynamited into scrap.
So died the one and only official Ferris wheel. But the invention lives on in the ubiquitous imitators inspired by the pleasure Ferris made possible. Eiffel’s immortal icon is undoubtedly une pièce unique. But at boardwalks, county fairs and parish festivals around the globe millions whirl through the sky in neon-lit wheels and know the sensation that, years later, Joni Mitchell put into words. “Moons and Junes and Ferris wheels,” she sang, “the dizzy dancing way you feel.” Summertime riders know just what she means.