It’s the ubiquitous carnival ride: the Ferris wheel. You can find them at the traveling fairs that suddenly appear in strip mall parking lots. You can find them along the banks of the Thames in London. You can find them on the Las Vegas Strip.

But who invented the Ferris wheel?

As you might guess, the wheel was invented by a person named “Ferris.” But there’s much more to the story of the Ferris wheel, and it’s a story worth telling. Here’s all you need to know about who invented the Ferris wheel.


The 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago

In 1890, the United States House of Representatives chose Chicago as host city for the upcoming World’s Fair. The 1893 World’s Fair would also be known as the “World’s Columbian Exposition,” because it marked 400 years since Columbus arrived in the New World. But there was one big problem for the Chicago World’s Fair: It had to follow the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, which was a smashing hit.

Why was the 1889 World’s Fair so memorable? The chief reason was the unveiling of a 984-foot tower that served as the Fair’s centerpiece. The Eiffel Tower served as the gateway to the World’s Fair, but, of course, its status as an icon has lived well past 100-plus years.


Planning the Chicago Fair

By 1890, preparations for the Chicago World’s Fair were well underway. And organizers were worried: What could Chicago do that would outshine Paris and its Eiffel Tower?

In October 1890, Chicago World’s Fair Construction Chief Daniel Burnham spoke to the Saturday Afternoon Club, a group of construction and design professionals interested in the World’s Fair to come. Burnham wanted to motivate the group to create a concept that would be bigger, better and more intriguing than the Eiffel Tower.

Some suggested building a tower even taller than the one constructed for Paris. But this idea was quickly dismissed as too copycat. But, sitting in the audience during the discussion was one George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. — and he had an idea.


George Ferris’ Wheel

George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.

Years before that meeting of the Saturday Afternoon Club, George Ferris had designed an amusement ride in the shape of a wheel. Ferris, who worked for a company that built steel bridges, suggested that this enormous amusement ride would allow visitors to see the entire Fair.

Some said the design was impossible. Some said the wheel couldn’t possibly be safe. But it was just the “original, daring and unique” idea that Fair planners had been looking for.

Investors provided $400,000 for construction of the Ferris Wheel. It would spin on an axle that weighed 89,320 pounds, and it would rest atop 140-foot-tall towers. Guests would ride in 36 cars suspended from the wheel, each with a capacity of 60 guests. At its peak, the Ferris wheel would provide riders views from 264 feet in the air.


The First Ferris Wheel’s Smashing Success

The Original Ferris Wheel

While the 1893 World’s Fair opened on May 1, the Ferris Wheel wasn’t ready for action until June 21. But, once it opened, the first Ferris wheel was a smashing success.

It carried an estimated 38,000 passengers each day, who would enjoy two trips around — a journey that took about 20 minutes. The World’s Fair finally closed in October, but the Ferris Wheel stayed open until the next April. It was moved to a different location in Chicago, where it operated until 1903. Then it was transported to St. Louis, where it was used in the 1904 World’s Fair — after which it was destroyed with dynamite.


Ferris Wheels Today

While George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. isn’t well known, the wheel that bears his name is famous around the world. Today, you can ride the largest Ferris wheel in the world in Las Vegas, where the High Roller stands 550-feet tall. What started in the 19th century as a bid to outdo Paris and its Eiffel Tower has turned into a lasting amusement that people around the world enjoy.

Do you have a favorite Ferris wheel? Is so, let us know in the comments section below. Or, you can always send us a message directly.


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