The world’s first Ferris wheel was originally built for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair just to outdo a previous fair’s Eiffel Tower, but it ended up leaving behind a legacy. The idea for the Great Wheel came from 32-year-old engineer George Washington Gale Ferris.
Once Ferris was armed with a hard-to-come-by $600,000 to fund the venture and plans rumored to have been drawn on a dinner napkin, he approached the fair committee for clearance. Although they laughingly dubbed Ferris “The Man with Wheels in His Head,” committee members eventually gave Ferris the green light to proceed.
In the dead of a severe Chicago winter with about four months before the fair’s grand opening, Ferris began to bring the idea to life. The work was quickly contracted out to companies best suited for each task, such as the 45-foot axle forged by Pittsburgh’s Bethlehem Iron Company. The axle itself weighed 89,320 pounds, and each end featured a 16-foot cast-iron spider, totaling another 53,000 pounds.
Constructing the foundation of the wheel involved piping live steam into the frozen ground to first thaw the sand and then to stop concrete from freezing until it set. Crews drove piles 32 feet into the frigid earth, topping them off with steel beams and concrete piers. Each of the eight piers towered 35 feet high, and their job was to support the 140-foot-high towers on which the axle would turn.
Ferris’ original plans never survived, but the wheel assembly was described as “a very involved process.” A power plant built outside the fairgrounds held two reversible, 1000-hp engines, one as the main engine and the other for backup. They fed steam to the wheel through 10-inch pipes while a Westinghouse air brake controlled wheel movement.
Each of the 36 cars measured 24 feet long and carried 60 passengers. They featured large windows, securely locking doors and firefighting equipment in case of emergency.
The Great Wheel debuted to the public on June 21, 1893, and ran without incident until November 6. A single revolution took 9 minutes on the 2-million-pound structure. The first Ferris wheel enjoyed nearly 1.5 million paid rides, netting the Ferris Wheel Company a $395,000 profit. The wheel was eventually moved, sold, moved again, then in 1906 reduced to rubble with 200 pounds of dynamite.