Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Ferris Wheel

George Washington Ferris, the inventor of the Ferris wheel, was born on this day in 1859 in Galesburg, Illinois.

Ferris was a bridge and tunnel engineer who designed and built the first Ferris wheel for the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, a 264-foot pair of concentric wheels from which 36 pendulum passenger cars (with a total capacity of 2,160 riders) were hung, connected to a 45-ton axle -- the largest piece of steel forged up to that time -- powered by two 1,000-horsepower engines and supported by two 140-foot towers. His inspiration was the water wheels he had seen in the mining district of western Nevada, which delivered water in tiny buckets to troughs for the mining mules and horses.

The wheel captured the imagination of the world, and the $350,000 it cost to build was recouped within the first few days of its opening on June 21, 1893. William Dean Howells, for one, called it "incomparably vast" -- but ultimately dismissed it as "a money-making contrivance." It was indeed that: it grossed $726,805.50, and it hinted at the fun that could be produced by modern technology.

Ferris rebuffed several offers for the rights to his invention, tried his hand for awhile at running his own amusement park, and died broke and suffering from depression in a Pittsburgh hospital on November 22, 1896. The original Ferris wheel changed hands several times and ultimately made its way to St. Louis, where it was demolished in 1906.

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