The Man With Wheels In His Head

by Gabrielle DeMarco on March 8, 2010


As any good Rensselaerian knows, one of our most famous alums designed the world’s first Ferris wheel. What I wasn’t prepared for was how massive that first-ever Ferris wheel was. When George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. set out to build a modern engineering marvel, he did not settle for the type of Ferris wheel now found at nearly every world-class and low-brass fair, amusement park, and beach boardwalk in the world. When Ferris envisioned the Wheel it was literally a world wonder that seemed both crazy and reckless to many engineers at the time.

Ferris, who graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 1881, set out to develop the next great engineering feat to be featured at the 1893 Chicago World’s Colombian Exposition. The structure had to rival the then reigned champion of it time, the Eiffel Tower, which had been unveiled several years earlier at the Paris International Exposition of 1889. His wheel was literally designed using first principles. Stresses for such a structure had never been contemplated.

Legend has it that once the construction of the wheel was approved, Ferris and the engineers had only four months until the start of the exposition. And it was the dead of winter with slush so deep on the Chicago construction site that the sand was constantly moving under the structure.  When complete, the wheel held 36 cars that each weighed 26,000 pounds and carried up to 60 people. Complete with thousands of Edison’s new incandescent light bulbs (the polarized LEDs of their time), the wheel stood 265 feet high. More than a million people paid 50 cents for a 20-minute ride on the wheel.

To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Ferris’ birth, author Richard Weingardt published a book, Circles in the Sky, dedicated to the civil engineer’s life and the story of that first Ferris Wheel. An excerpt from the book ran in the most recent issue of our alumni magazine, Rensselaer, complete with gorgeous photography of some the original wheels’s most amazing modern offspring. This issue is also the first to take the magazine to a nifty new interactive Web format. Check out some of the world’s biggest wheels in the new format.

And while world fairs and expositions seem like a quiant novelty of the past akin to tin toys and glass Coke bottles, it is amazing to think of the structures that our most recent civil engineers could create if given the same carte blanche ability for unfathomable creativity that Ferris was allowed. I have a feeling that they would make the 19th century engineer very proud.