The two people in the photo at right seem stopped in their tracks, much like I was when I saw this image for the first time. As I took in the details, I realized the towering metal behemoth was a Ferris wheel. It would take a bit more research to discover that this is actually the Ferris Wheel – the one that gave this iconic ride its name.
Daniel Burnham, Director of Works of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, wanted American engineers to deliver a marvel to rival the Eiffel Tower, built for the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle, and engineer George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. took up the challenge. Ferris’ answer was a steel wheel 250 feet in diameter, steam-powered and capable of carrying over 2,000 people at one time. It eclipsed every other “pleasure wheel,” the term for much more modest rotating wheel rides, in size, capacity and sheer nerve.
I immediately sought out more images in our collections to see the full scope of this monster ride, and was not disappointed. The Ferris Wheel and a captive balloon were dramatic sights on the Midway Plaisance at the exposition, where 1.5 million people paid 50 cents each for two revolutions on the big wheel. (Another term was coined at this world’s fair, as avenues of rides at all manner of fairs are now known as midways!)
The Columbian Exposition was open for just over a month before the Ferris Wheel was finished and ready for riders. In the photo below left just six of the thirty six cars are in place. And at right, the wheel is ready to roll!
The Ferris Wheel rises above the distant horizon in this 1893 bird’s eye view of the massive exposition:
Years after its rousing success during the Columbian Exposition, the Ferris Wheel was moved and reassembled for the national stage in the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis. The next two photos attest to the impressive view fair goers enjoyed while riding the wheel.
Following Ferris’ landmark creation, which was eventually demolished for scrap in 1906, even grander wheels appeared around the world, including Paris’ reply to the Ferris Wheel, La Grande Roue, at the 1900 Exposition Universelle.
Regardless of future improvements on the design or the development of even larger wheels, this type of amusement ride had a new name after 1893: the Ferris Wheel.Learn More:
- Enjoy many other photos of Ferris wheels in the Prints and Photographs Division’s collections, including some 21st century wheels from the Carol M. Highsmith Archive.
- Explore the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago through hundreds of photographs, drawings and prints.
- Visit Paris and the new Eiffel Tower through images of the Exposition Universelle of 1889.