The first Ferris wheel was part of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The Eiffel Tower of 1889 had thrown down the gauntlet in terms of engineering feats, and the planning team of the Chicago fair was focused on finding some way to top it. They contemplated towers, a giant tent, and skyscrapers. Steelmaker and engineer George Washington Gale Ferris had his own suggestion: a gigantic wheel, inspired by water wheels. The exposition’s directors granted him the right to build it, but he had to raise $350,000 for the project and coordinate all the manufacturing of parts and construction on a tight time frame.
Fortunately for Ferris, it was an immediate success. At the time, Scientific American was impressed by the way the wheel dominated the exhibition grounds, reporting that the “most conspicuous object by all odds is the great wheel which rises a half mile below.” At 250 feet in diameter, it was “the biggest wheel on earth.” Visitors loved the thrill of being lifted up to obtain a view of the midway.
As engineer Henry Petroski points out, however, the wheel was novel in scale, but not in concept. Smaller wooden “pleasure wheels,” which lifted riders in little compartments, had existed since the eighteenth century.
But Ferris’s development would become a standard form of engineered attraction. Wheels based on his design started appearing all over the world. Few of the early examples survive today (even the Chicago wheel was unceremoniously junked a few years later). The Vienna Riesenrad (built 1897) is the oldest Ferris wheel in operation, having been repaired after damage in the Second World War. It has made memorable appearances in cinema, from The Third Man to James Bond.
By 1906, the Eli Bridge Company was selling smaller wheels that could be easily disassembled for transport: perfect for traveling carnivals. Ferris wheels were soon a standard feature of county fairs, and “Ferris wheel” became a household phrase.
Ferris’s invention also had a life he might not have anticipated: the wheel turned out to have an educational use too. Teachers use them to explain trigonometry, functions, and other mathematical questions.