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The History of the Ferris Wheel

By November 15, 2022December 22nd, 2022Resources
History of The Ferris Wheel

You can rent a Ferris Wheel for your next big event in Florida through full-service entertainment rental companies that give you the chance to give your festival, fundraiser or company party a carnival atmosphere. It also gives partygoers a chance to enjoy a ride with a great American history.

The history of the Ferris Wheel involves an American architect who wanted to outdo the French and their masterpiece, the Eiffel Tower, and an engineer with a dream about building a giant, rotating wheel. As with most great stories, it also has a bit of controversy.

Today, you can rent a Ferris Wheel that is descended from that original majestic feat of engineering at the end of the 19th century. It’s a ride that has never lost its grip on the American imagination.

How Can You Rent a Ferris Wheel in Florida?

Renting a Ferris Wheel in Florida requires partnering with a professional company with experience in safely setting up and operating a Ferris Wheel. Expert event managers work with you to ensure you have the space to use a Ferris Wheel, which can stand 50 feet high. They also will set up and operate the ride.

Modern Ferris Wheels come adorned with lights that allow it to make an even bigger impression during the evening hours of a corporate party, college event or fundraiser. It gives everyone a chance to take in the view from high in the air in a way that has thrilled people for centuries.

History of the Ferris Wheel Starts in the 17th Century

The history of the Ferris Wheel began in the 17th century. Writings from that time refer to what were essentially early prototypes of Ferris Wheels. For example, Peter Mundy, who traveled across Europe and Asia from 1608-1667, included descriptions of “pleasure wheels.” These wheels had chairs that hung by rope from a large wheel turned by a team of men.

Roman Pietro Della Valle also wrote about a Great Wheel at the Ramadan festival in Constantinople in 1615. Various incarnations of the Great Wheel continued to crop up across Europe over the next few centuries, as well as India, according to the BBC.

Where Did the Ferris Wheel Get Its Name?

The Ferris Wheel as we know it today started with a man named William Somers. In the early 1890s, Somers received a U.S. Patent for his “Observational Roundabout,” basically an early version of the Ferris Wheel. Somers placed three of the wheels – each 50-feet tall – at Asbury Park and Atlantic City in New Jersey, as well as at Coney Island in New York.

One of the riders on the Observational Roundabout was a man named George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. Originally from Illinois, Ferris graduated in 1881 from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, as a civil engineer. By 1893, he had created a company in Pittsburgh, Penn., called G.W.G. Ferris & Co., that tested metals for railroads and bridge builders and inspected finished works.

As fate would have it, the organizers of the World’s Columbian Exposition, set for May through October in 1893 in Chicago, hired Ferris & Co. to inspect exhibits. It put Ferris into contact with another important person in the creation of the Ferris Wheel, Daniel Burnham.

Wanting to Outdo the French

On Jan. 27, 1887, the French erected a monument that still commands attention today: the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Created as a centerpiece for the 1889 World’s Fair, the Eiffel Tower also marked the centennial of the French Revolution.

Burnham, an architect who oversaw the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, wanted something as a centerpiece that would rival the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, no one among his team of engineers and architects had any workable ideas.

However, Ferris came to the exhibition with an idea of his own. His involvement with the exposition got him access to Burnham and his people. He told them about his inspiration – creation of a giant, revolving wheel that could carry passengers. Burnham gave the greenlight for the project, and Ferris went on to create the first Ferris Wheel, according to Smithsonian magazine.

The Ferris Wheel Becomes a Huge Hit

Ferris oversaw construction of the giant wheel in Pittsburgh, then had it shipped to Chicago. Once erected, the wheel stood 264 feet tall. The wheel rotated on a 45-foot axis – forged by the Bethlehem Iron Company – and had 36 cars that held up to 60 people. By today’s standards, the wheel turned very slowly, taking 20 minutes to complete two revolutions.

People absolutely loved it. During the exposition, it carried about 38,000 passengers daily. By 1906, the year that officials demolished the wheel, it had carried more than 2.5 million passengers.

The Ferris Wheel went on to become a staple of American life, seen at every carnival and state fair across the nation. Unfortunately, Ferris himself did not live to see it happen.

He became bankrupt after the end of the exhibition and became involved in a web of lawsuits. One involved Somers, who sued Ferris for copyright infringement. Ferris admitted in court that he rode the Observational Roundabout in 1892. Somers won the lawsuit, but lost on appeal.

Ferris filed his own lawsuit against organizers of the exposition for not giving him his part of the $750,000 (more than $25 million in today’s dollars) the Ferris Wheel generated during the exposition.

Ferris had borrowed $400,000 to build the wheel. He eventually moved the wheel to Lincoln Park in Chicago, but a nationwide depression (and opposition from people in the area to having a giant attraction near their neighborhood) led to the wheel losing money. Unable to make payments on his debts, Ferris declared bankruptcy. In 1896, he died of typhoid fever. The New York Times reported on March 8, 1898, that a Pittsburgh undertaker – still owed $150 for the engineer’s funeral expenses – continued to hold the engineer’s ashes.

For his part, Somers continued to build his own wheels, but the Ferris Wheel name stuck. Others followed, creating new wheels. The Ferris Wheel – while perhaps never rivaling the iconic status of the Eiffel Tower – is something still enjoyed by millions at summer fairs and on boardwalks around the world.

It’s also gone worldwide. London unveiled the London Eye in 2000, and some of the biggest wheels are now outside the United States, including the Singapore Flyer and the Star of Nanchang in Jiangxi Province, China. The largest wheel is now the Ain Dubai in Dubai, which stands 800 feet tall. It’s even slower than the first Ferris Wheel in Chicago – it takes a half hour to complete one revolution.

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