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In addition to the below sources and information, I recommend Ferris Wheels: An Illustrated History by Norman D. Anderson.


From the Dictionary of American Biography, Vol.III


GEORGE WASHINGTON GALE FERRIS , Jr. (February 14 (16?), 1859 - November 22 (28?), 1896), civil engineer, inventor of the Ferris Wheel; was the son of George Washington Gale Ferris and Martha (Hyde) Ferris; born at Galesburg, Ill., but moved with his parents to Carson City, Nev., in 1864. After graduation from the California Military Academy at Oakland, Calif, he entered the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at Troy NY, from which he received his civil engineering degree in 1881. After a few months in the railroad contracting office of General J.H.Ledlie in New York City, he helped to locate seventy-eight miles of the proposed Baltimore, Cincinnati & Western Railroad in West Virginia, and a narrow-gauge road three and a half miles long in Putnam County NY. As engineer, and later general manager for the Queen City, W.VA Coal Mining Company (1882) he designed and built a coat trestle in the Kanawha River and located and built three 1,800-foot tunnels. He next became interested in bridge-building, was employed successively by several companies, and achieved something of a reputation for concrete work under heavy pressure in pneumatic caissons.

In 1885 he took charge, for the Kentucky and Indiana Bridge Company of Louisville, of the testing and inspection of steel and iron bought at Pittsburgh. Foreseeing an increase in the use of structural steel, at that time just being introduced in bridge work, he familiarized himself with the processes involved in its manufacture and from the duties and responsibilities of his inspecting position developed a new profession. Eventually he organized the firm of G.W.G. Ferris & Company at Pittsburgh, with a corps of engineers and assistants to conduct mill and shop-work inspection and testing throughout the country. He was connected with this company until within about a week of his death. After the organization was functioning well, however, he turned his personal attention toward the promotion and financing of large engineering projects, and was concerned in the construction of bridges across the Ohio River at Wheeling, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh.

When Daniel H. Burnham, chief of construction for the World's Columbian Exposition, challenged the civil engineers of the country to produce something to rival the Eiffel Tower of the Paris Exposition, Ferris's imagination was fired, and in an effort to achieve something entirely new he designed the Ferris Wheel. He undertook its construction against the advice of friends and business associates. In the midst of the severe financial depression which the country was experiencing in 1892, the financing of the proposition was rather a difficult matter; at first the scheme was looked upon as fantastic; not for some months was he granted a concession, and not until after the Fair had opened was the wheel completed. Rising 250 feet above the Midway, carrying thirty-six cars, each with a capacity of some forty passengers, revolving under perfect control, and stable against the strongest winds from Lake Michigan, it excited general attention. The daring and accuracy involved in its design and the precision of machine work involved in its construction won the admiration of engineers. The most spectacular feature of the Exposition, it proved also a profitable investment. Ferris died less than four years later. He was survived by his wife, Margaret Beatty of Canton, Ohio. He left no children.




From the Harper=s Young People, August 1, 1893:

The Eiffel Tower was the popular wonder at the Paris Exhibition, and in the same way the great Ferris Wheel in the Midway Plaisance promises to be the wonder-provoker at the World=s Fair in Chicago. There was nothing very original about the tower in Paris except that it was taller than any tower previously built and this Ferris Wheel perhaps is mainly noteworthy because it is so surprisingly large. The wheel indeed is so large that is the landmark of the fair, and each newcomer to the exhibition, when he catches sight of it from afar exclaims, AWhat on earth is that?@

The wheel was in process of building for twelve months, and was not finished till the middle of June. It was opened to the public on the 21st of June, the longest day of the year. This wheel is a kind of gigantic merry-go-round, swinging vertically instead of horizontally. The wheel is 250 feet in diameter, 825 feet in circumference, and 30 feet in width. As it is elevated fifteen feet above the ground, the passenger at the top gets a view at an elevation of 265 feet. It is composed of two wheels of the same size connected and held together with rods and struts, which, however, do not approach closer than twenty feet to the periphery or outer surfaces. Each wheel has for its outline a curved, hollow, square iron beam 25 2 x 19 inches. At a distance of forty feet within this circle is another circle of a lighter beam. These beams are called crowns, and are connected together by an elaborate truss-work.

The wheel has thirty-six cars for passengers hung on its periphery at equal intervals. Each car is 27 feet long, 13 feet wide, and 9 feet high. It has a heavy frame of iron, but is covered externally with wood. It has a door and five broad plate-glass windows on each side. It has forty revolving chairs made of wire and screwed to the floor. It weighs thirteen tons and when loaded with passengers three tons more. Each car is suspended to the periphery of the wheel by an iron axle six and one-half inches in diameter and running through the roof. There is a conductor to each car to open doors and give information.

To prevent accidents from panics, and also to deter insane persons from jumping out, the windows are covered with iron gratings. As the wheel, with its cars and passengers, weighs about 1200 tons, it needs something substantial to rest upon. Its axis is therefore supported on two skeleton iron towers, pyramidal in form, one at each end of it. They are 40 x 50 feet at the bottom, 6 feet square at the top, and about 140 feet high. Each tower has four great feet and each foot rests in a concrete foundation 20 x 20 x 20 feet, all of these foundation piers being bound together by connecting rods of steel.

The wheel is moved and controlled by a 1000-horse power steam-engine, while the periphery is cogged with cogs 6 inches deep and 18 inches apart. Underneath the wheel in line with the crown on each side, are two sprocket-wheels 9 feet in diameter, with their centers 16 feet apart. These sprocket-wheels are operated by the engine at the will of the engineer, who can turn the wheel either way, fast or slow, as he may wish. Near the north and south ends are two ten-foot wheels, with smooth faces, and girdled with steel bands. These bands terminate a little to one side in a large Westinghouse air-brake. If, therefore, anything should break, or the engine refuse to work, the air could be turned into the air-brake, and the steel band tightened until not a wheel in the whole machine could turn.

On the opening day the Iowa State band was in the first car, and played the AStar-Spangled Banner@ and ADixie@ as the wheel revolved with its first load of passengers. The cars moved up so slowly that their motion was almost imperceptible and quite noiseless. It seemed as if the earth was sinking away out of sight slowly and quietly - and it sunk to an astonishing distance too. Going up the passengers had the whole of Chicago and the Prairies for miles beyond laid before them unobscured. Going down there was a clear view of the World=s Fair - the White City being seen at a single glance, while the sail-dotted lake was beyond, and the swarming Midway Plaisance right beneath. It is when the car gets right at the top of the wheel, and the passenger pokes his head out and looks down to see how far away and how insignificant is the big axle in the center of the tangle of steel rods, that he best realizes how tall the Ferris Wheel is, and how far the passenger is from the firm footing.

The sensations made by a ride on the wheel were different in each passenger. Some of them were undoubtedly frightened, just as a timid countryman is frightened when first riding in one of the quick moving elevator cars of a tall building; but the fright was a pleasurable one, even if it did for the moment take the breath away. The poets and fine writers are already beginning to get in their work on this great engineering achievement. Mr. Eugene Field, the Chicago poet, in singing the delights of the Midway Plaisance, has said:

AThe Ferris Wheel, with arms of steel,

High as a tower will wind you up;

If you should fall, for good and all,

The doctors they would bind you up!@


After the fair closed, the wheel and reproductions of it were set up as attractions at amusement parks all over the country and even abroad; imitations of it are still commonly to be seen. But the enterprise ceased to be remunerative to its inventor, whose later days were saddened by seeing this spectacular child of his brain seized by a sheriff, and indeed this event is said to have hastened his death.


From an article, AAmerica=s Eiffel Tower@ by Anne Funderburg

In 1893, George Washington Gale Ferris was the champion of U.S. technology, the engineer who had proved that America could top the Eiffel Tower. That summer, excited tourists waited in line for the ride of a lifetime on Ferris=s big mechanical wheel, which could carry 2,160 passengers at a time to a height equaling that of a twenty-six story building, in an era when most people had never seen a skyscraper. Although the thirty-four year old Ferris was an unlikely celebrity, he quickly became famous as the press recounted his struggle to build the machine that other engineers had said couldn=t be built. There seemed to be no limits to what he could achieve.

Only three years later he was bankrupt and living alone in a hotel in Pittsburgh, estranged from his wife. On November 21, 1896, he died at Pittsburgh=s Mercy Hospital, with no one at his side. Obituaries reported that he had died of typhoid fever, tuberculosis, or a kidney ailment called Bright=s disease. His marital and financial problems gave rise to rumors of suicide, but no real evidence has ever surfaced that he killed himself. Fifteen months after Ferris=s death the crematorium was still holding his ashes, waiting for someone to claim them. Like his famous wheel, Ferris=s career had ascended to exhilarating heights, where anything seemed possible, before coming right back down to earth, where life could be harsh.

Although little is known about Ferris=s private life, a memorial written by two engineering colleagues perhaps offers a glimpse of his personality. AHe was eminently engaging and social,@ they eulogized, describing him as an entertaining storyteller who often amused his friends with anecdotes. They portrayed him as an optimist, convinced that he would ultimately overcome any troubles. Even in the darkest times Ahe was ever looking for the sunshine to come. He had, however, miscalculated his powers of endurance and he died a martyr to his ambition for fame and prominence.@

Ferris was born in Galesburg, Illinois, on February 14, 1859. His family was prominent in Galesburg, which had been founded two decades earlier by the Reverend George Washing Gale (for whom young George, his father, and the town they lived in were named). Innovation was in his blood; several other Ferrises had shown an inventive streak, including George=s uncle Nathan Olmsted Ferris, who introduced popcorn to Great Britain by preparing a batch for a fascinated Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1846. When George was five years old his family headed west, settling near Carson City, Nevada, when money ran low. Because his parents valued education, or perhaps because he was unruly, he was sent away to school at the California Military Academy, in Oakland. In 1881 he completed an engineering degree at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. After graduation he worked on road, trestle, and bridge projects in New York, Kentucky, and West Virginia. Then he moved to Pittsburgh and started an engineering firm with some friends from Rensselaer, specializing in inspecting iron and steel bridges and other structures. Later the firm opened branch offices in Chicago and New York City.

Ferris=s ascent to fame began when he attended a banquet in 1881 or early 1892 for engineers and architects in Chicago, which would soon host the World=s Columbian Exposition - the Chicago world=s fair. There Daniel H. Burnham, the director of works for the fair, gave a speech praising America=s architects for planning beautiful buildings for the exposition=s White City but regretting America=s engineers had not risen to the challenge of producing a structure to rival the Eiffel Tower, star of the 1889 Paris International Exposition.

Although the fair=s planners had received many proposals, none were novel or daring enough. For want of anything more original, they made half-hearted plans, which were later dropped, to build a tower taller than Paris=s famous landmark, a structure that would be mimicry than innovation. Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel himself offered to surpass his Paris tower by building a grander one for the Chicago fair, but the committee on buildings and grounds promptly received a letter signed by twenty-five leading U.S. engineers demanding that any tower built for the exposition, Abe the result of American genius@.

Intrigued by the challenge, Ferris began toying with four or five ideas. Later he told a reporter: AWe used to have a Saturday afternoon club, chiefly engineers at the World=s Fair. It was at one of those dinners, down in a Chicago chop house, that I hit on the idea. I remember remarking that I would build a wheel, a monster. I got some paper and began sketching it out. I fixed the size, determined the construction, the number of cars we would run, the number of people it would hold, what we would charge, the plan of stopping six times in the first revolution and loading, and ten making a complete turn - in short, before the dinner was over, I had sketched out almost the entire detail and my plan has never varied an item from that day.@ Since, Ferris made these comments during a lawsuit challenging the originality of his invention, he may have had reason to exaggerate how comprehensive his lunchtime inspiration was.

Ferris envisioned two large, identical, parallel circles connected with struts and revolving on an enormous steel axle, lifting passengers in railroad-style cars high above the fairgrounds. In many ways, Ferris=s design resembled a bicycle wheel, but while a bike wheel has a continuous rim, his structure, made of separate segments connected with pins, depended on truss work for rigidity. His claim of completing the details in one afternoon must have been an exaggeration, because the stresses in the wheel were complex for the time and inspired a lively discussion among engineers even after the wheel was operational. William F. Gronau, one of Ferris=s partners, later said that he himself had solved the problem of safe balance and stressing. There were also reports that Ferris had actually designed the wheel five or six years earlier.

Although Ferris had an excellent professional reputation, many of his colleagues said that his wheel would not even; even if the means could be found to turn so great a mass, it would become deformed when it revolved. Burnham worried that the wheel would not withstand Chicago=s notorious winds, while others wondered who would be foolhardy enough to ride such a contraption.

Ferris persisted, spending $25,000 on plans and specifications. The fair=s directors hesitated, questioning whether the design was feasible. After granting permission in the spring or early summer, they withdrew it almost immediately. Finally, on November 29, 1892, they again accepted Ferris=s idea, with the proviso that he find his own financing, because their construction budget had already been allocated for other projects.

The Eiffel Tower=s builders had received a large subsidy from the French Government, but Ferris was on his own. He used his personal credit to begin placing orders for steel and formed a joint stock company, but the sale of shares went slowly until he attracted several prominent investors, including Andrew Onderdonk (a railroad magnate) and Judge William Vincent. Ferris faced another problem the French hadn=t had; time. Eiffel took more than two years to build his tower; because of the director=s vacillation, Ferris had only twenty-two weeks before the fair=s inauguration on May 1, 1893 (as it turned out, he missed the opening). Moreover, he would have to work through a Chicago winter building an untested design. His chances of success seemed slim.

While excavation was under way in Chicago, most the wheel=s components were being wrought at nine steel mills in Detroit and loaded onto 150 railroad cars for shipment. Other parts were being manufactured in Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, and in Pittsburgh and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Ferris=s first major construction task was to pour concrete footings. He had to do this in January 1893, when the temperature fell as low as ten degrees below zero. The crews dug as fast as they could in the frozen ground, striking quicksand about twenty feet down. When they reached bedrock at thirty-five feet, they began to pour cubic blocks of concrete twenty feet on a side, using steam to keep it from freezing.

The next step was to build the tall towers that would support the wheel=s axle. First, large steel bars were embedded in the concrete to anchor them. The towers were then built of vertical posts and horizontal struts, or braces, which were reinforced with crisscrossed rolled-metal rods. Arched plate-iron girders at the bottom of the towers connected the posts to each other for greater strength and stability.

When the towers were finished, it was time to starting putting up the wheel itself. The workmen started by hoisting the forty-five-ton axle - the largest hollow steel shaft ever forged - to rest on bearings at the top. Then they attached spokes to the hubs at either end of the axle and, by linking the ends of the spokes with metal beams, formed two parallel circles. Next, truss work was attached to these inner circles, and two parallel outer rims were formed with curved, hollow iron beams and connected to each other with iron rods, from which the cards would later hang.

To rotate the monster, the crew installed sprocket wheels and a driving chain underneath it. Notched cast-iron plates on the outer rim of the wheel accommodated the pins of the driving chain, which would engage the wheel on its lower edge. The power came from a thousand-horsepower horizontal coal-fired steam engine; an identical engine was held in reverse for emergencies. A Westinghouse air brake was installed to stop the wheel - if indeed it ever started.



From The Ferris Wheel. Compiled by Lois Stodieck Jones for the Carson Valley Historical Society, published by the Grace Dangberg Foundation, Inc., 1984.

The inventor of the Ferris Wheel, George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., was born in Galesburg, Illinois on February 14, 1859. In 1864, the Ferris family, G.W.G. Ferris, Sr., his wife, four daughters, and three sons, traveled west by wagon and carriage from Galesburg. They had sold their dairy and cheese plant in Illinois for $60,000 and intended to settle in San Jose, California, where the older children planned to go to school. Upon their arrival in western Nevada, money was worth only 50 centers on the dollar due to inflation caused by the Civil War. This prohibited their going on to California.

The family lived for six years in a ranch house one mile north of present-day Minden, Nevada before before eventually moving to Carson City. George G.W. Ferris, Jr., was five years old when his family moved west, and he thoroughly enjoyed his years on the ranch. During this time, he wrote of ranching as Athe best occupation I know of@ and expressed his delight in living near the Carson River. He was a very observant boy, as this composition reveals:

>When the men irrigated the grain the black birds would be scattered all over the fences watching for crickets. When the water ran over the grain in would drive them out of the ground and some of them would have to swim to the banks. Then the birds would catch them and when they get their fill they pack them off and stick them on some shirp (sic) bushes until they get hungry. And also the butcher birds will do the same. And the meadow larks and the chipping (sic) birds are very peculiar about there (sic) food. They mostly live on grain and seeds=.

George Ferris, Jr., had many years of schooling to complete before becoming an engineer and inventor. The Carson Valley rancher H. F. Dangberg, husband of George=s oldest sister Margaret, provided the tuition which took young Ferris to Oakland where he attended the California Military Academy and was graduated from that institution as a captain. He later enrolled in the Rensselaer Polytechnic School in Troy, New York.

When financial difficulties overtook the Ferris family in 1879, George wrote to H.F. Dangberg requesting a loan to finish his studies:

>If you can... see me through, I will be greatly obliged to you and will try and pay you principal and interest at 10%. I can=t do anything better than to send you my note payable as soon as possible after I shall have graduated, and my everlasting obligations. Now if this matter is going to inconvenience you...., I want you to write and tell me of it, and I will come home, for though I am very anxious to finish I am bound not to put you out...=

George W. G. Ferris, Jr., was graduated with the degree of Civil Engineer in 1880, ready to embark on his life=s work. He wrote to his family:

>I am so anxious to get home and get to doing something. I know that I can find plenty to do.. It may not be very lucrative work but what I do I care. I am young and strong.=




North Side: People: George Ferris North Side: George Ferris

The Big Ferris Wheel

It Is the Chief Sensation of the World's Fair.

Inventor Declared a Genius.

When He First Broached His Plans to the Directors of the World's Fair

They Thought He Was Crazy--

A Description of the Wheel

As It Stands in Midway Plaisance.

From The Alleghenian, 1 July 1893.

World's Fair, June 28.-- Special. By Robert Graves.

There is nothing in the World's Columbian exposition that compares in genuine

novelty and sensationalism with the great vertical wheel which stands in the

very center of Midway plaisance. In these letters I long ago predicted that this

giant structure would be the chief sensation of the World's fair, just as the

Eiffel tower was the chief sensation of the Paris exposition, and my prediction

has been verified. Though the wheel has been in operation to the public but a

few days, vast crowds of people constantly surround it watching its movements,

and thousands more pay their half dollar apiece for the privilege of going

around upon it.

Considered from the engineering standpoint as well as from that of popular

interest this is a greater marvel than the Eiffel tower, which earned a great

reputation for its builder and a small fortune for its owners. Whereas the

Eiffel tower was simply a bridge a thousand feet long erected upon a strong

foundation and placed on end, a simple construction like a couple of Chicago's

tall steel buildings stood one upon the other and resting upon a tall foundation

of sufficient strength to hold them, the vertical wheel is a bridge 825 feet

long, 30 feet wide and constructed of steel, twisted into a circle and hung upon

an axle round which it revolves by means of the force given it by powerful steam

engines. The Eiffel tower involved no new engineering principle, and when

finished was a thing dead and lifeless. The wheel, on the other hand, has

movement, grace, the indescribable charm possessed by a vast body in action.

What the genesis of the vertical wheel was in the brain of its inventor is an

interesting thought. Undoubtedly it had its origin in the horizontal

merry-go-round, and that started in the whirligig which country boys used to

make with a post and a plank set across the top of it, pinioned at its middle.

From the whirligig to the flying horses or merry-go-round was but a step. The

merry-go-round has had its greatest development at the sea shore resorts of

Coney Island and Atlantic city. At the latter place the owner of the

merry-go-round owns also a good share of the town. The nimble nickels flowing

into his coffers in an uninterrupted stream all summer long have enabled him to

buy no end of corner lots and erect brick blocks thereon.

Some one saw that the horizontal wheel was coining money and concluded to go it

one better by building a vertical wheel. There are vertical wheels at the sea

shore, and some of their kind have been brought to the World's fair and may be

seen outside the fair gates taking passengers round at the old rate of a nickel

a ride. These small vertical wheels must have been the suggestion to Ferris, the

bridge builder and engineer. He said he would build a wheel that would astonish

the world, and by the side of the little wheels of the sea shore be as the ocean

itself to a mill pond.

He prepared his plans and came to Chicago to ask permission to erect his wheel

within the World's fair grounds. At first the fair directors only laughed at

him. They thought he was crazy, that he was a crank. Then they granted him a

concession, but without any thought that he would ever build his wheel. After a

time they concluded that it was not wise to bother themselves further with such

a visionary individual, and they cancelled the concession. They were not going

to have a wild-eyed man with wheels in his head lumbering up the center of the

plaisance with his contraptions. But Ferris, confident of success and backed by

ample capital, stuck to the scheme and induced the directors, after a time, to

again reconsider their action and again permit him to go ahead. This is the

brief history of the struggle this genius had to secure recognition even from

such progressive and wide-awake men as the directors of the World's fair. Such

has been the history of genius ever.

It is almost impossible either by picture or description in words to give you an

idea of what this wheel is like. A mere statement of its dimensions, 250 feet in

diameter, 825 feet in circumference, 30 feet broad and weight more than 4,000

tons, does not mean much to the average mind. It may help the reader to

understand what the structure is like if I say that the highest point of the

wheel is as far from the ground as the top of one ten-story building would be if

it were put on the roof of another building of equal height.

When you look at this wheel as it stands on the plaisance you are struck by the

resemblance it bears to some mighty bicycle. It has the same sort of a hub, the

same rods and struts running therefrom to the periphery, the same light airiness

[of] model. In truth, it seems too light. 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 this 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? Engineer Ferris says the wheel is strong enough to do all

this. Other engineers, some of them men of eminence in their profession, say the

same thing. Therefore the public seems content to take it for granted that the

wheel is not only the greatest novelty of the age, but that riding upon it is as

safe as riding over a bridge that is placed horizontally on masonry piers.


There are thirty-six cars on the wheel. Each is 27 feet long, 9 feet high and 13

feet broad. It is like an enormous bird cage. Human beings are to be the

inhabitants. The doors are closed when the passengers are within, and locked.

The windows are covered with a strong wire netting. There is a conductor to each

car to look after the comfort of the passengers. No crank will have an

opportunity commit suicide from this wheel, no hysterical woman shall jump from

a window. From platforms built on the ground six cars are loaded at one time.

Each car will seat, on revolving chairs, forty passengers. Therefore the

thirty-six cars will seat 1,440 passengers. But with standing room occupied the

wheel has a capacity of 2,000 persons.

As soon as the first six cars are loaded the man in charge gives the signal and

the steam is turned into cylinders of the thousand horse-power engine which

moves the vast machine. Slowly, with just enough trembling and oscillating to

make the nerves of passengers quiver, the wheel must make one entire revolution.

By this time the occupants of the coaches have become somewhat accustomed to the

novel situation. They have ceased to think of the possible danger and are

occupied with the beauty of the panorama which lies far below them.

Now comes the most interesting feature of the trip. The wheel is set in motion

at a more rapid pace, though still not very fast, and is not stopped until a

complete revolution is made. It is an indescribable sensation, that of revolving

through such a vast orbit in a bird cage, that of swinging in a circle far out

over the plaisance in one direction, then turning in the other direction, and

still higher, and finally beginning the descent from such a great height. People

wonder what would happen if the pinions which hold the cars through their roofs

should break, or refuse to revolve. They wonder how they would get down if the

machinery should break and the engineer be unable to further revolve the wheel,

thus leaving them dangling in mid air. While they are thinking of these things

the movement ceases, then starts up again, and finally it becomes their turn to

step out on the wooden platform and down again to mother earth.

I have no desire to advertise the wheel when I tell you a trip upon it is worth

taking. You cannot advertise the wheel, anyway, any more than you can advertise

the fair, or the Atlantic ocean. They are all too big. They are their own

advertisement. The novel sensation, the opportunity to study a great engineering

work, the beauty of the scene presented from the great altitude, all combine to

make the trip on this structure fully worth the time and the cost.

As yet there is not the slightest reason to fear the safety of the machine. The

steel towers which support the vast bicycle wheel are bedded and bolted into

thirty feet of concrete. They are calculated to support five times the weight

and the wind pressure produced by a tornado of a hundred and fifty miles an

hour. Motion is imparted to the mass by means of huge cogs in which a link belt

fits. If anything should break and it be desirable to stop the machinery there

is a powerful brake operated by compressed air. The axle which runs from the top

of one tower to the other, 140 feet in the air, is the greatest steel forging

ever made, being 82 inches in diameter and 45 feet long, weighing fifty-six

tons. How Ferris ever got it up there is a mystery to me, but he did it. The

cars are so attached to the wheel, it is said, that it is impossible for them to

fail to turn so as to preserve the center of gravity.

What is the principle, the chief principle, on which the wheel is constructed?

It is that of a bicycle wheel, as I have said, except that this wheel does not

rest upon the surface but depends from the steel axle. The lower half of the

wheel simply hangs from the mighty axle, and this lower half supports the upper

half by means of the steel framework of its two rims. That is the whole thing in

a nut shell. The wheel, though apparently rigid in its construction, has just

enough elasticity to make this method of support possible, and yet not enough

elasticity to produce any appreciable trembling or slipping effect.

Now the World's fair directors are glad they changed their minds and decided to

recognize this genius. Not only have they thereby secured the greatest sensation

of the fair, but without a dollar of outlay on their part have made certain of

an enormous revenue. The exposition gets one-half the earnings of the wheel, and

it is estimated the total receipts will average something like $10,000 a day

during the remainder of the summer. The cost of the wheel complete, was about

$250,000. Engineer Ferris is likely to reap a rich reward for his boldness and


North Side: People: George Ferris North Side: George Ferris

266 Feet in Air:

The Ferris Wheel Turns and Mrs. Ferris Gives a Toast:

Her Husband's Health and the Wheel's Success--

Two Carloads of More or Less Nervous Guests Join Her in Drinking It.

From the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, 17 June 1893.

Special to the Commercial Gazette.

Chicago, June 16.--Standing on a chair in a car swaying 266 feet above the earth

a little woman raised a glass of champagne to her lips and drank to the health

of her husband. The little woman looked wonderfully pretty. Her eyes shone with

the light of love and wifely pride. She smiled sweetly at those in the cars

beneath her and they cheered wildly for her and her husband. She was dressed in

a dainty gown of black, trimmed with gold. She said softly as she made the


"To the health of my husband and the success of the Ferris wheel."

She wasn't a bit afraid as she stood there, and that alone shows the immense

amount of faith she must have in George W. S.[sic] Ferris, both as husband and

mechanical engineer. Her black eyes sparkled deliciously as she made the toast

and the bright color shown in her cheeks and the mist-laden wind played tenderly

with her dark curls.

It was 6:15 o'clock last night when the great 1,000-horse power engine

underneath the Ferris wheel began to throb slowly. A car resembling a large

street car without wheels was swung up to the first entrance landing at the east

approach to the wheel. First two big hampers of champagne and boxes of cigars

were carried into the car and placed on the tables.

Some Were Timid.

Then two-score invited guests filed in, their faces expressing all the emotions,

ranging from pleased expectancy to a very palpable timidity. Then a second car

was swung to the landing and more guests piled in. Some men with voices of

marked huskiness shouted unintelligible orders to each other and the great wheel

began to revolve for the first time.

It was 6:32 o'clock. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it lifted the cars away from

the earth, revolving from east to west. A fourth of the way up the wheel

stopped. The passengers gasped in unison and looked at each other with smiles

more or less sickly. They looked down and saw that they were hanging directly

over the Austrian village. Suddenly they heard the regular throbbing of the

engines again and felt much better.

The wheel climbed steadily upward and the passengers grew bolder. Some of them

looked over the edge of the car and at once became less bold. In eight minutes

the wheel had completed the first quarter of the circle. In seven minutes more

the loaded cars had measured half the circumference and hung 266 feet above the


Again the engines stopped and the champagne was poured. All in the two cars

drank standing to George W. S.[sic] Ferris, Mrs. Ferris proposing the toast and

calling it across to those in the next car. Then all gave three cheers to the

inventor and drank to the health of his pretty wife with immense enthusiasm.

Enjoy the View.

Then more cheers were given, more wine was drunk, some impromptu congratulatory

speeches were made, and the guests, just a trifle hysterical from the excitement

and the unwonted nervous strain, turned to enjoy the view. Looking to the north

and west they saw the great majestic city lying beneath them shimmering in the

rays of the setting sun and radiant in the foliage of early summer. The

ever-present pall of smoke hung low over the spires and housetops to the north,

but was slowly receding before the soft evening breeze. Directly beneath was the

wonderful panorama of the Midway Plaisance, black with its seething,

world-garnered population, flashing with the mingled glow of colored lights and

gay banners.

Faintly there came to the ears the sound of many kinds of music, now the

plaintive wailing of an Arab's flute or the dull, monotonous pounding of a

Turk's tamtam. Again one heard the majestic strains of a German national hymn.

It was an impressive almost weird scene, a memorable experience, this looking

down for the first time on this wondrous street teeming with thousands swept by

the breath of the effort of the ages into this narrow lane and there living and

moving in careless gayety for a summer's holiday.

City of Palaces.

To the east was the wonderful city of glistening palaces, whose shadows

stretched far out into the heaving waters. It was like the dreams of the

biblical prophets who saw in their reveries the nations of the earth come

together in mighty concourse and to whom the glories of heaven were revealed.

Of the marvelous mechanism by which this great picture was disclosed to men it

is enough to say that its cost was $400,000, that the axle on which the beam

turns weighs 140,000 pounds and is the largest piece of steel ever cast in one

piece. The entire weight of the wheel and its mechanism is [4,800] tons as is

moved by two engines of 1,000-horse power each. Over 2,100 persons may make the

trip at one time. The formal opening of the wheel to the public will take place

Wednesday next with a program of speeches and music.

Galesburg Register Mail date unknown.

Ferris’ wheel towered over a world’s fair by Herb Priestley, Guest Column. Dr. Herbert Priestley, Knox College professor emeritus of physics, is a regular guest columnist on the Register-Mail’s editorial page.

""Whatever other reputations the (1893 Chicago Exposition) may establish, it will have brought a generous and just measure of fame to a young engineer whose daring and brilliant exploit has already set him far in the front rank of the engineers of America, if not the world. This is George Washington (Gale) Ferris, the inventor of the great Ferris wheel. Few there are among those that attend the World’s Fair who do not visit this huge and curious mechanism, pause to wonder and marvel at its bulk, its symmetry and the massive strength of its apparently frail contour. Much of it was built against the judgment of many of the ablest engineers." – Review of Reviews, Sept. 4, 1893

If the name of the "young engineer" has a somewhat familiar ring, it is because it is that of a son of Galesburg and bears two of the most distinguished names in the city’s history.

Ferris was born in Galesburg on Feb. 14, 1859, to George Washington Gale and Martha Hyde Ferris. When he was 6 the entire family headed west by wagon and carriage to San Jose, Calif. The trip was financed by the sale of the family’s dairy and cheese plant.

Unfortunately, inflation brought on by the Civil War greatly reduced the value of the family nest egg. Unable to make their goal in California, the family lived for several years near Minden, Nev., before eventually settling in Carson City. A rancher uncle footed the bill so Ferris could attend the Oakland (Calif) Military Academy. From there he entered RPI, graduated in 1880 with a degree in civil engineering. His career included engineering positions with several railroads and supervisory appointments in the design and construction of large bridges. He subsequently formed and headed his own bridge-building company in Pittsburgh and achieved national stature.

While living on the ranch in Nevada, he became fascinated with the action of a large undershot water wheel, which raised buckets of water out of the Carson River to supply a horse trough. The action of the water wheel was later to provide the impetus for the giant Ferris Wheel.

It was common practice at the time to highlight each of the world’s exposition with some spectacular focal point. The Paris Exposition, which preceded Chicago, filled that requirement with the spectacular Eiffel Tower, a fittingly distinctive monument to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution.

America pride was at stake, and America, having already established its industrial achievement, would use the fair to demonstrate that its ingenuity was also the equal of the Old World’s. Construction progressed on the Chicago exhibition buildings even though no progress was made in finding a truly novel structure for the Chicago fair which would "discount" the Eiffel Tower.

Architect Daniel Burnham, chief of construction for the project, addressed a banquet of architects and engineers, praising the architects but excoriating the engineers for not having proposed anything matching the novelty and originality of the Eiffel Tower. Burnham felt the engineers were thinking only of towers, bigger and better though they may be. He wanted something new in engineering science.

George W. G. Ferris was among the engineers attending the banquet. A while later he was at a Saturday afternoon dinner club, made up mainly of world’s fair engineers, at a Chicago chop house. Here he "hit on the idea" based on his never forgotten water wheel. As he recalled, right there he "began sketching out a monster wheel… fixed the size, the construction, number of cars, number of people it would hold, what we would charge… before the dinner was over I had sketched out almost the entire detail … my plan never varied an item from that day."

The proposal, perhaps because it was so novel, received mixed reactions. Eminent engineers condemned the idea as impractical, if not impossible.

Exposition directors first approved, then canceled that approval. They reversed their field again, giving the go-ahead in mid-December 1892. The fair was to open May 1, 1893.

In a scant six months, Ferris had to raise $350,000 and locate, fabricate, assemble into components in Detroit, and ship to Chicago some 2,100 tons of materials. It took three years to complete the Eiffel Tower. Ferris had to construct in six months not only a work equaling this, but "in such a what that it would move, and moreover, move perfectly – a far greater problem."

As late as December 1892, every scrap of iron and steel used in the wheel was "pig iron". Six months later, on June 21, 2,200 tons of this "pig" converted "into a revolving mechanism as perfect as the pinion wheel of an Elgin watch," began to turn on its 70-ton axis, at the time the largest steel shaft ever forged. The wheel, 250 feet in diameter, carried 36 cars each the size of a trolley car (27 feet long, 13 feet wide) and each seating 60 people.

One can only imagine the anxious suspense when the last car had been hung in place, all supports knocked away, and the signal given to set the monster in motion. Would the wheel answer the touch of its driving gear? A finger was lifted to open the throttle and the great wheel began to turn – and went on turning and making required stop after stop "with a precision and accuracy that is not the least of the wonders of this mechanical marvel."

Ferris was aware that his giant wheel was located in the Windy City. How would it react in a strong wind? He was confident that all would be well. When questioned about this, he replied, "Five times the speediest wind (about 120 miles per hour) wouldn’t bother the wheel at all. It is made to stand that and more." The wheel was put to test in July. "Winds of hurricane force swept Chicago striking the steel across its face. Mr. Ferris, accompanied by his wife, and a reporter, entered a car. Slowly the great wheel lifted them into the midst of the roaring howling tempest of wind reaching 110 mph. It was a place to try better men’s nerves." The inventor had faith in his wheel, and Mrs. Ferris in her husband. "The beautiful wheel hardly shivered. It turned as evenly and smoothly as if fanned by summer zephyrs."

According to Mr. Snyder, behind the big wheel was "a personality more interesting than the mechanism itself," ‘tall, well-proportioned and well sent out .. rather fastidious in his dress, a bearing of easy confidence. His conversation is fascinating … you felt yourself in the presence of a man surcharged, teaming with ideas." Certainly, Snyder continued, "no one could sit for an hour and listen to his easy, unaffected talk, brilliant without effort, and not feel in the presence of a man destined to play an important role in the industrial and mechanical advancement of this country."

The wheel was a substantial economic success. It provided a 20-minute passenger ride for 50 cents, operated for 19 weeks, and carried a total of 1.45 million paying customers. A estimated 90-percent of the visitors to the fair "took a ride," as many as 38,000 passengers in a day. It grossed over $727,000. More importantly, it ran without accident, even though over the 19 weeks of operation it made about 10,000 revolutions. The wheel cost, in place, $392,000.

As the Chicago Exposition closed, disposition of the big wheel presented another problem. To move and rebuild it in New York City (as was once proposed) would have cost $150,000, Through the winter of 1893-94, it presided immobile over the deserted fairgrounds. The next spring, its parts were dismantled, numbered and loaded into railroad cars - only to have the cars sit on a railroad siding throughout the ensuing winter. The wheel was reassembled in the spring of 1895 on Chicago’s Clark Street at a small amusement park, which proved to be too small to attract enough visitors to support the wheel. Ferris’s wheel was re-erected for the last time in St. Louis at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Sadly it then became a rusting eyesore, finally meeting an inglorious end when it was dynamited in 1906.

The big wheel did give birth to many imitators – including a small version at an 1894 San Francisco Exhibition and several erected in the 1890s in Britain. A wheel at London’s 1895 Oriental Exhibition included cars reserved for smoking and non-smoking passengers.

Passengers on today’s Sky Whirl rotate high above the Six Flags Great American theme park in Gurnee. From this descendent of Ferris’s wheel, they can look southward to the Chicago skyline’s reminders of the Eiffel Tower and almost make out the phantom of Ferris’s original wheel still turning on the midway.

George Washington Gale Ferris, born in 1850, died at age 41. His personal character and his professional record foretold a career of national and international reputation. Who knows what feats of engineering he might have achieved. His early death was a severe loss to the future of the profession he graced with superb skill and the highest personal example."