Historical Markers
Ferris Wheel Inventor Historical Marker
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Ferris Wheel Inventor

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
West Commons, Arch St. near S Diamond (MARKER NOT YET REINSTALLED)

Behind the Marker

George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. was born in Galesburg, Illinois, on February 14, 1859, one of the ten children of George W.G. and Martha Edgerton (Hyde) Ferris. In 1864, the family relocated to Carson City, Nevada, where Ferris Sr. helped landscape the new state capital. After the family moved to Riverside, California, in 1880, Ferris attended the California Military Academy, then earned an engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York.

Head and shoulders, black and white illustration
Engineer George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., circa 1893.
After graduation, Ferris designed railroad bridges, trestles, and tunnels, and made frequent trips to Pittsburgh to inspect steel purchased for the Kentucky and Indiana Bridge Company. Together with several RPI graduates, he then established G.W.G. Ferris and Company in Pittsburgh as inspection engineers for industrial sites. In 1886, Ferris married Margaret Ann Beatty of Canton, Ohio, and settled in Allegheny City (later annexed by Pittsburgh) on Arch Street. With branch offices in New York and Chicago, he also founded Ferris, Kaufman and Company, which financed large-scale construction projects, including major bridges at Wheeling and Cincinnati.

In 1891, Ferris attended a banquet in Chicago where Daniel H. Burnham, director of works for the Columbian Exposition of 1893, issued a challenge for design of a superstructure that would rival the monumental Eiffel Tower, erected in Paris in 1889 for the Exposition Universelle. French architect Alexandre Gustave Eiffel (1832-1923) proposed a similar but taller design for Chicago, but American engineers demanded that the Chicago structure should be "the result of American genius."

Axle of the Ferris Wheel
The 70-ton axle of the Ferris wheel after its arrival in Chicago in 1893.
While a child in Nevada, Ferris had been fascinated by a water wheel along the Carson River. Several days after Burnham issued his challenge, Ferris sketched his idea for a "gargantuan Ezekiel's Wheel" on a restaurant napkin and showed it to other engineers. "I remember remarking that I would build a wheel, a monster," Ferris recalled. His skeptical peers thought a huge wheel would collapse under its own weight. Undeterred, Ferris spent $25,000 of his own money to prepare detailed blueprints.

When Ferris approached the exposition's directors, one board member remarked that "Ferris is a crackpot. He has wheels in his head." Ferris won over a majority of the directors, but they stipulated that he must finance construction with his own money. To do so, Ferris formed a joint stock company, attracted wealthy investors, and then began to order the pieces.

At the core of his "monster" wheel was an 89,320-pound axle manufactured by Bethlehem Iron Company in Bethlehem, Pa. Thirty-three inches in diameter and 451/2 feet long, the massive axle was hoisted on to thirteen-ton cast-iron spiders set on twin 140-foot towers. More than 100,000 parts went into building the wheel. The finished structure was 264 feet in height-about twenty-six stories-and, according to one reporter, the wheel "varied from a true circle less than the most delicate pivot-wheel of a watch."

To turn the giant wheel, Ferris built a power plant with two 1,000-horsepower reversible engines, one for primary power and the other as an emergency backup, connected to a 20,000-pound sprocket chain that turned the wheel. To stop the wheel and hold it motionless when needed, he employed a custom-built marker Westinghouse air brake. To carry passengers, Ferris mounted thirty-six glass and steel passenger compartments the size of railroad cars onto the wheel, into each of which he placed forty comfortable swivel chairs. The great wheel's total capacity was 2,160 passengers.

Ferris Wheel and general overhead view of part of Chicago's World's Columbian Exposition.
The Ferris Wheel at the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, IL, 1893
On June 21, 1893, Ferris, local and national dignitaries, and a forty-piece band playing "America" rose high above the midway for the first time. Margaret Ferris toasted her husband's accomplishment atop the 250-foot-diameter wheel. For Ferris, it was his finest moment.

Over the next nineteen weeks, more than 1.4 million people paid 50 cents for a twenty-minute ride that gave them a spectacular view of the Exposition's 150 buildings. Not everyone, however, was convinced of the value of the wheel. A writer for The Manufacturer and the Builder griped that "It lacks, to our way of thinking, character and dignity of purpose, and must awaken in the mind of the serious and thoughtful the disappointing reflection that a vast amount of money has been expended upon the production of a giant toy". Fairgoers, however, were delighted by how Ferris had harnessed American engineering genius for public leisure and amusement.

Ferris's wheel performed flawlessly and safely, and returned $725,000 in revenue on an investment of the $400,000 it had cost to build. The wheel, however, brought Ferris only heartache, for he had to sue the Exposition over the wheel's profits while fending off patent lawsuits. Ferris soon declared bankruptcy and lost his companies. Then his wife left him. Suffering from kidney failure and typhoid fever, George W.G. Ferris Jr. died in Pittsburgh on November 26, 1896, at the age of thirty-seven. His cremated ashes remained unclaimed for fifteen months until his brother satisfied the funeral debt.

Axle of the Ferris Wheel
Looking through the Ferris Wheel at its wooden cars, Chicago, Il, 1894.
Before Ferris's death, the wheel was dismantled and reassembled near Lincoln Park for Chicago's North Clark Street Fair, where a new group of investors hoped to develop the site as a tourist attraction. Lincoln Park residents successfully campaigned to have the wheel removed, citing it as useless and "undesirable industrialism." With $400,000 in new debt, the investors sold the wheel for $1,800 to a new group, which reassembled the parts as the Observation Wheel in St. Louis for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904, where another three million riders enjoyed Ferris's invention.

Once again, after the exposition closed, local residents complained that the giant wheel was an eyesore. Ferris's monster wheel came to what the Chicago Tribune called an "ignominious end" on May 11, 1906, when 200 pounds of dynamite reduced the wheel to a pile of scrap metal.

George Ferris did not invent the concept of the wheel that bears his name. Indeed, vertical passenger-carrying wheels had been around for more than 200 years. In early 1893, William Somers received the first U.S. patent for a "Roundabout," of which he had erected three wooden, fifty-foot wheels in 1892 at Asbury Park and Atlantic City, N.J., and Coney Island, N.Y. But Ferris was the first to build one in steel, and on so monumental a scale. In doing so, George Ferris Jr. set the example for the amusement-park ride designers who would follow in his footsteps, harnessing cutting-edge engineering and technologies to build rides that were bigger, faster, taller and more expensive than any before them.
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