While at the Daytona International Speedway recently, I spent some time after dark watching the ferris wheel. All the colored lights bring back fond memories of our hometown fair and being “stuck” at the top and able to see forever.
The ferris wheel, named for George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., seems to have its origins in a 17th century “pleasure wheel,” on which passengers rode in chairs suspended from large wooden rings turned by several strong men. These wheels or swings were in operation as long ago as 1615 in Constantinople. Pietro Della Valle, a Roman traveller who attended a Ramadan festival in Constantinople, described a Great Wheel which swept him upwards and downwards with some enjoyable speed.
A Frenchman, Antonio Manguino, brought the wooden pleasure wheel to America in 1848 to attract visitors to his fair in Walton Spring, Georgia.
In 1892, William Somers installed three fifty-foot wooden wheels at Asbury Park and Atlantic City, New Jersey; and Coney Island, New York. The following year he was granted the first U.S. patent for a “Roundabout.” Ferris rode on Somers’ wheel in Atlantic City prior to designing his wheel for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. [It should be noted that Ferris’ design was so similar that Somers filed a lawsuit for patent infringement. Ferris and his lawyers successfully argued that the Ferris Wheel and its technology differed greatly from Somers’ wheel, and the case was dismissed.]
The original “Chicago Ferris Wheel” stood 264 feet high. The wheel rotated on a 71-ton, 45.5-foot axle, with two 16-foot-diameter cast-iron spiders weighing another 26 tons.
There were 36 cars, each fitted with 40 revolving chairs and able to accommodate up to 60 people, giving a total capacity of 2,160 at a time (that’s another 2+ tons). The wheel took twenty minutes to complete two revolutions and carried 38,000 passengers daily at 50 cents each.
After the Exposition, the wheel was rebuilt on Chicago’s North Side, near Lincoln Park, next to an exclusive neighborhood. It operated there from October 1895 until 1903, when it was again dismantled, then transported by rail to St. Louis for the 1904 World’s Fair. The Chicago Ferris Wheel was finally demolished on May 11, 1906.