By Dennis Bell
The Illinois-born civil engineer gave the world the Ferris Wheel, and got next to nothing for one of the greatest novelties in human history. George was just five years old when his parents moved the family from sedate and affluent Galesburg, Illinois to wild and woolly Nevada Territory. They had sold their dairy and cheese plant in Illinois for $60,000 and headed west in 1864, intending to settle in San Jose, California. However, the family fortune had shrunk to the equivalent of $30,000 by the time the Ferris family arrived by wagon in western Nevada. Money was worth just 50 cents on the dollar thanks to inflation caused by the U.S. Civil War, and it prevented the family from continuing on to California. Instead, George Ferris Sr. bought a ranch a mile north of present-day Minden, Nevada, in the Carson Valley, where the couple lived with three sons and four daughters for the following six years. During this time, George Jr. wrote of ranching as “the best occupation I know of” and expressed his delight at living near the Carson River. The story goes that his inspiration for the Ferris Wheel came from his fascination with a large undershot water wheel at Cradlebaugh Bridge on the river. Presumably, he imagined what it would be like to be riding around on one of its buckets.
George Sr. decided to create a landscaping business and the family moved into Carson City, occupying a residence on the southeast corner of Third and Division streets — the restored house is still there at 311 W. Third. George Sr. surrounded his new home with trees imported by rail from Illinois. The legacy of the Ferris family includes not only the Ferris Wheel, but much of the landscaping of Carson City, dating back to the 1870’s, including the state capitol grounds. The blue spruce that is now the official State Christmas Tree was planted by Ferris, Sr. in 1876. George Jr. left home in 1875 to attend the California Military Academy in Oakland, later moving east to study engineering. In 1880, he graduated from Rensselear Polytechnic School in Troy, New York with a degree in civil engineering. George Jr.launched his career in New York City, designing bridges, tunnels and trestles throughout the industrial northeast and midwest. Foreseeing an increase in the use of structural steel, he moved to Pittsburgh and founded G.W.G. Ferris & Co., a civil engineering firm that tested and inspected metals for railways and bridge builder, and later he opened offices in New York and Chicago.
Ferris’s ascent to fame began when he attended an engineers’ banquet in late 1891 in Chicago, just selected to host the World’s Columbian Exposition – the Chicago world’s fair of 1893. Daniel H. Burnham, director of works for the fair, challenged the engineers to produce a structure of some sort rivalling the Eiffel Tower, the superstar of the 1889 Paris International Exposition. Although the fair’s planners had received many proposals, none of them were considered novel or daring enough to put Chicago on the world map. The best they could come up with were plans for towers taller than Eiffel — mimicry rather than innovation. Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel himself offered to surpass his Paris tower by building a bigger and better one for the Chicago fair. However, Burnham quickly received a scorching letter from 25 leading U.S. engineers demanding that any tower built for the exposition “be the result of American genius.”
Ferris’s imagination was fired, and he began toying with four or five ideas — all of them round in shape. Later, he told a reporter: “We used to have a Saturday afternoon club, chiefly engineers at the World’s Fair. It was at one of those dinners, down in a Chicago chop house, that I hit on the idea. I remember remarking that I would build a wheel, a monster. I got some paper and began sketching it out. I fixed the size, determined the construction, the number of cars we would run, the number of people it would hold, what we would charge, the plan of stopping six times in the first revolution and loading, and ten making a complete turn. In short, before the dinner was over, I had sketched out almost the entire detail and my plan never varied an item from that day.” The basic nuts and bolts of the Ferris Wheel emerged from the chop house scrawled on a series of gravy-stained dinner napkins. Basically, Ferris had rekindled an idea that had been in the back of his mind since childhood, converting the Carson River water wheel into a gargangtuan Ezekial’s Wheel.
Many other engineers said it simply couldn’t be done — the stresses involved were simply too great, the wheel would collapse before it would rotate. But Ferris persisted, spending $25,000 of his own money on plans and specifications. The fair’s directors hesitated and dithered, questioning whether the design was feasible. After granting permission in the early summer of 1892, they withdrew it almost immediately. Finally, on Nov. 29, 1892, they again accepted Ferris’s idea, with the proviso that he find his own financing, because their construction budget had already been allocated to other projects. The Eiffel Tower’s builders had received a large subsidy from the French Government, but Ferris was on his own. He used his personal credit to begin placing orders for steel and formed a joint stock company, but the sale of shares went slowly until he attracted several prominent investors, including railway magnate Andrew Onderdonk and Judge William Vincent. Ferris faced another serious problem that hadn’t bothered the French — time. Eiffel took more than two years to build his tower. But in Chicago, because of the directors’ vacillation, Ferris had only 22 weeks before the fair’s inauguration on May 1, 1893. Moreover, he would have to work through one of those legendary Chicago winters, and his chances of success seemed slim.
While excavation and concrete pouring was under way in Chicago in ten-below-zero weather, most the wheel’s components were being wrought at nine steel mills in Detroit and loaded onto 150 railway cars for shipment. Other parts were being manufactured in Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, Pittsburgh and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Eventually, George Ferris’s dinner napkin concept became a steel wheel 825 feet in circumference rotating on a 45-foot axle 82 inches in diameter that weighed 56 tons — at that time the biggest single piece of steel piece ever forged. The steel towers supporting the wheel 144 feet above the ground were anchored in 30 feet of concrete. The wheel was powered by a pair of 1,000-horsepower engines. It rose 266 feet and carried 36 cars. Each car was 13 feet wide, staffed by a conductor, with accommodation for 2,160 riders at a time. The entire structure weighed 4,100 tons, the size of a small ship.
The $250,000 wheel opened June 21, 1893, seven weeks behind schedule, revolving under perfect control, and stable against the strongest winds blowing in from Lake Michigan. Its riders were elevated the equivalent of 26 storeys, and on a clear day were able to see the scenery in three different states from the top of the circuit. A newspaper reporter who rode the wheel with George and his wife Margaret Ann a few days before it officially opened told of the experience in typically purple prose: “As the mad storm swept round the cars the blast was deafening. It screamed through the thin spider-like girders, and shook the windows with savage fury. It was a place to try a man’s nerves. The inventor had faith in his wheel; Mrs. Ferris in her husband. But the reporter at that moment believed neither in God nor man.” Built to withstand 150-mile-an-hour tornado-force winds, the Ferris Wheel easily survived the remnants of a full-scale hurricane that roared inland off the Atlantic later in the year and did a lot of damage to other exhibits and attractions at the fair.
The ride cost 50 cents per person in 1893 and each ride lasted about 10 minutes– it took that long to make two complete circuits. It was stop-and-go for one circuit of loading and unloading, a full and much faster rotation on the second. The daring and accuracy of its design and the precision of the Ferris Wheel’s machine work won the admiration of engineers and the joy and wonder of generations. During the 19 weeks it operated, the Ferris Wheel carried 1,453,611 paying customers. Its gross take was $726,805.50, triple its capital cost, and it was by far the greatest single attraction at the Columbian Exposition. The Ferris Wheel was by no means the only invention unveiled at the Chicago world’s fair. Juicy Fruit Gum, Cream of Wheat cereal , diet carbonated soda pop, Pabst Beer, Shredded Wheat, Cracker Jacks, Aunt Jemima Syrup, and hamburgers all made their debuts there. But it was certainly the most spectacular — and least fattening — of them all.
Ultimately, the wheel did little for George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. After the fair closed, much smaller Ferris Wheel reproductions were set up as attractions at amusement parks across the U.S., but they generated little cash for the inventor. He became obsessed with the wheel, investing his dwindling cash reserves in schemes to build and sell bigger and better wheels across the country and around the world. But there were no buyers, and George’s wife finally left him in early 1896 as he slumped deeper into despair and depression. He moved into a cheap hotel in Pittsburgh, where a friend asked him during this troubled period in his life if he had other projects in mind. “Better not say,” George replied in a dark whisper. “Some of them might be too frightening.”; He didn’t live to see the advent of his machine’s offspring — the first roller coaster, ancestor of the high-tech speed thrillers dominating today’s fairs and amusement parks. But he finally saw that his great wheel did something much more than compete with the Eiffel Tower. It really did thrust the rider “out into the sky, for the outward curve down” for a mind-boggling vision of reality. Ferris soon took the outward curve down himself, dying the night of Nov. 21, 1896 in Pittsburgh’s Mercy Hospital, with no one at his side. Newspaper obituaries reported that George had died of typhoid fever, tuberculosis or Bright’s disease, a kidney ailment. His marital and financial problems gave rise to rumors of suicide, but no real evidence has ever surfaced that he took his own life. He sdimply refused to seek the medical attention that might have kept him alive. “He was eminently engaging and social,” two engineering colleagues wrote in a memorial, describing George as an entertaining storyteller fond of amusing his friends with colorful anecdotes. They portrayed him as an optimist, convinced that he would ultimately overcome any troubles. Even in the darkest times, “he was ever looking for the sunshine to come. He had, however, miscalculated his powers of endurance and he died a martyr to his ambition for fame and prominence.” George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. was just 37 years old, a lonely, bankrupt, sickly and broken man.
The original Ferris Wheel soon followed him. Seized by sheriff’s officers on orders of a bankruptcy court, It was dismantled, eventually transported by rail south and reassembled in New Orleans for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. But it wasn’t nearly as great an attraction in New Orleans as it had been in Chicago — the novelty had worn off for Americans. The wheel was dynamited on May 11, 1906, almost two years after the fair closed, with the rusty metal remnants unceremoniously buried as landfill in the Mississippi delta. A Chicago newspaper lamented its destruction as the loss of “America’s rival to the Eiffel Tower”; Engineer William Sullivan of Roodhouse, Illinois, succeeded where George failed. He created the world’s first portable Ferris Wheel in Jacksonville, Florida in 1897 and formed the Eli Bridge Company, the oldest Ferris Wheel maker still in operation today, still making Ferris Wheels rather than Sullivan Wheels.
Fifteen months after Ferris’s death, a Pittsburgh crematorium was still holding his ashes, waiting for someone — anyone — to claim the remains of one of the great champions of North American technology, the engineer who proved Americans were capable of topping the Eiffel Tower. But the mad rush of American history into the 20th century had passed him by. Curiously, it was the French who paid George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. the ultimate posthumous compliment. When planning got under way for the Paris Exposition of 1900, the French decided they wanted a Ferris Wheel of their own, just like George’s. The French engineers were given a copy of Ferris’s original schematics and reconstructed his Ferris Wheel down to the last rivet. The dead inventor’s soaring, shocking technological answer to the Eiffel Tower dazzled France, and dazzled Europe