Ferris Wheel History: Past, Present, and Future
PAST: The Birth of the Ferris Wheel
In 1893, the world turned its attention to the American city of Chicago, where that year’s World Fair was being held. Besides being only the third city in the United States to host the exposition, after the 1876 fair in Philadelphia and the 1884 fain in New Orleans, it also marked an important anniversary for the New World. In honor of Christopher Columbus’s landing in the Americas four hundred years earlier, the 1893 Fair was officially known as the World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition.
To ensure the City of Chicago shined in the world’s eyes, the city recruited the best American designers, artists, architects, engineers and scientists to put on a show that was full of innovation and splendor. For those wanting to ensure they were able to get the best view possible of the elaborate attractions, it was necessary to summon the bravery to travel 264 feet above the fairgrounds. Fortunately they were able to do this in comfort and relative safety, thanks to what was perhaps the jewel of the Columbian Exposition, the Chicago Wheel. Modern fair goers might be more familiar with the attraction’s other name, the Ferris Wheel.
One of the engineers who travelled to Chicago to help design the Expo was a thirty-two year old bridge builder for the railroad named George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. Ferris received word of the challenge issued by the Fair organizers to design an attraction that would dwarf the splendor of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, a city that had already hosted four previous World’s Fairs, including the most recent event in 1889, which is the year the Eiffel Tower was completed. Though the concept Ferris had in mind would pale in comparison to the Tower’s 915 foot high viewing platform, it would have a distinct advantage. The Chicago Wheel would rotate in a circle adding a new dimension and a greater thrill to the act of aerial observation.
The problems George faced are the same many observation wheel designers face today: how to build a wheel larger than any previously built, how to get permission to build at a desired location, how to finance such a gigantic undertaking, etc. George actually wanted to build a 300 foot wheel but it was decided 300 feet would not be much better than 250 so the plans were scaled down.
Once complete, the Chicago Ferris wheel would be a marvel of modern engineering and steel forging. It rotated around a seventy ton axle manufactured by the famed Bethlehem Steel Company of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania and could accommodate 2,160 passengers at one time. The passengers enjoyed each 20 minute ride in the comfort of one of the wheel’s forty hanging chairs, each of which held sixty passengers. For this short ride and spectacular view, each passenger paid $.50, which at the time must have seemed rather expensive.
After the 1893 Fair, the wheel was relocated to another area of Chicago, where it remained until it was once again disassembled and shipped to St. Louis, MO so it could thrill visitors to the 1904 World’s Fair. Once this ended, the wheel was scrapped, but not before the device could form a lasting legacy in the realm of fairs, carnivals and city attractions. In 1895, the Chicago Wheel’s 264 feet height was surpassed by the newly constructed 308 feet tall Great Wheel in London, England, which itself was soon dwarfed by the 328 foot Grande Roue in Paris. The race for Ferris Wheel supremacy was on!
PRESENT: A Modern Marvel
Though the Ferris Wheel has maintained a prominent place in its country of origin, in more recent years it has been European and Asian cities that have taken the lead in creating bigger and more spectacular observation wheels. Currently, the world’s two largest wheels are the 525 foot tall Star of Nanchang in Nanchang, China, and the 541 feet tall Singapore Flyer in Singapore. However, perhaps the most spectacular observation wheel currently in operation is the 443 feet tall London Eye, which sits on the banks of the River Thames in the city of London, England. Though not everyone is overly thrilled with the presence of the London Eye amidst the classic, subdued architecture of old London town, the wheel attracts more than 3.5 million visitors annually and is the most popular premium tourist attraction in all of the United Kingdom.
Thanks to the popularity of the original Chicago Wheel, carnivals and other travelling shows were quick to take advantage of smaller wheels that could be quickly disassembled and transported on trailers. These have been a staple of local fairs and carnivals around the world for over a century and will likely continue to hold a place for many years to come. However, they are no longer the mini versions of observation wheels they used to be. The current record for a transportable Ferris Wheel is 217 Ronald Bussink wheel.
Over the years, the classic Ferris Wheel with its single-wheel, round design with hanging baskets has been joined by more innovative designs. Among the most spectacular are the eccentric wheels. These wheels act like a combination roller coaster/Ferris Wheel as the individual passenger baskets slide along the rails of the wheel for a more dynamic ride.
FUTURE: Looking Forward to Tomorrow
As we continue into the 21st Century, we can expect to see the classic Ferris or observation wheel maintain its place in fairs and amusement parks around the world. But we will likely see more innovative and grander designs erected in cities around the world. New York City, Orlando, Florida and Las Vegas, Nevada are all planning spectacular rides hoping to restore the grandeur of the Ferris Wheel to its home nation. But the competition is still as cities such as Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Kolkata, India and Shanghai, China have their own projects in the works. What the future holds for the humble observation wheel no one can say for sure, but one must speculate that somewhere in the world today, there is someone dreaming of the first observation wheel on the Moon, or perhaps on Mars.
Notable Dates in Observation Wheel History
1620- Ferris wheels are observed in the Middle East
1893 – William Somers issues patent for 16 seat roundabout. George Ferris invents the first Ferris wheel
1895 – The Great Wheel in London becomes the world’s tallest Ferris wheel at 308 feet
1896 – Big wheel at Blackpool opens. George Ferris dies.
1897 – Wiener Riesenrad is erected in Austria
1900 – The Grande Roue de Paris becomes the tallest Ferris wheel with a height of 328 feet
1920 – New York’s Wonder Wheel is the world’s first eccentric Ferris wheel
1968 – Six Flags Astroworld opens the world’s first double Ferris wheel ride manufactured by Intamin
1989 – Japan’s Cosmo Clock 21 becomes the tallest Ferris wheel yet, topping out at 353 feet (later increased to 369 feet). The Ferris wheel at Asbury Park is taken down ( it was the oldest operating Ferris wheel in United States at the time).
1997 – Tempozan Ferris Wheel opened with a new record of 369 feet
1999 – Daikanransha takes tallest record with a height of 377 feet
2000 – The London Eye smashes the current record holder with a total height of 443 feet
2006 – The Star of Nanching in China becomes the first Ferris wheel over 500 feet tall, with an official height of 525 feet
2008 – The Singapore Flyer in Singapore is becomes the world’s tallest open and operating Ferris wheel with a height of 541 feet.
2014 – The High Roller in Las Vegas takes the height record.
See the current list of the world’s largest observation wheels.
Last revised: 5-30-14