The Ferris Wheel: A Guide to Dealing with Nay Sayers
Has anyone ever told you you’re crazy? You hit them with an idea you’re super stoked about, only to have them slap it down with a callous wave of the hand. I’ve received plenty of this as an aspiring writer, and those wave-offs can hurt. They can chip away at you until the doubt hijacks your passion and creativity. It takes a strong person to block all those “no ways” and “it can’t be done” chorus lines. Someone who believes in the power of their vision and what’s more, they believe in their ability to accomplish it. It takes someone with confidence, someone with smarts and boldness …. someone like George Ferris.
Born in 1859 in Galesburg, Illinois, George and his family moved to Carson Valley Nevada in 1864. George left in 1875 to attend the California Military Academy in Oakland, where he graduated in 1876. He also completed a stint at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, where he left with a degree in Civil Engineering in 1881. Armed with memberships in prominent engineering societies, and a keen interest in bridge building, George set out to Pittsburg to work on the railroad. Life seemed ready to fall into place… until he saw a peculiar newspaper announcement in 1891.
By then, talk had turned to action for the organizers and board of the globally famous Chicago World’s Fair, or “World’s Columbian Exposition,” – scheduled to open in 1893. Envious of the Eiffel Tower and the stir it caused at the 1889 Paris International Exposition, the US yearned to strike back. They needed a grand exhibition, something that would knock the Eiffel tower off its engineering marvel perch. The newspaper announcement George Ferris saw posed a direct challenge to the engineers of America – get your brains in gear and give us something to brag about.
At a prominent engineering conference, where Daniel Burnham himself (one of the main organizers of the Chicago World’s fair), gave a rousing plea for a headliner exhibition, George Ferris got an idea.
A wheel. A really, really big wheel, bigger than most buildings at the time. Big enough to attach train cars and carry about two thousand people around. Big enough to cause an absolute disaster if it wasn’t handled with perfect precision. Would it outshine the Eiffel tower? Maybe. Was it feasible to build? Perhaps. Was it the craziest thing anyone had ever heard of? You betcha.
That didn’t stop George Ferris. Along with some of his Pittsburg colleagues, he began frantic calculations to get the wheel in his head onto paper. That alone proved a challenge, because they had nothing to go on. No one had set precedents for something like this, no former plans or rulebooks could guide them. Ferris would have to create his own rulebook, and he would have to stake thousands of lives on the confidence he had done a good enough job. He blasted out some rough sketches, put them in a nice little presentation, and he submitted it to the Chicago World’s Fair.
Burnham and company wanted an idea to shock and awe, but the wheel came off as a bit much. This wild engineer pitched something that could turn a world’s fair into a world massacre if one little bolt wasn’t screwed in right. Some of the committee insulted Ferris outright, deeming his contraption a “monstrosity” and his mind questionable at best. Crazy. Impossible. No way! They stamped two separate Ferris inquiries with a big fat no, and they moved on to the next brainy hopefuls in line.
Most would have left it at that. I mean, rejected outright, twice in a row, would sting a bit. However, the rejections only stoked George’s ambition. Determined to have his way with the Columbian Exposition, he dropped an astounding twenty-five thousand dollars on top-of-the-line drawings for his idea, and he used them to entice the one thing that always turns heads – money. George Ferris rounded up a hoard of prominent investors, and the publicity began to stack up. With that kind of power behind him, in November of 1892, George submitted his wheel to the World’s Fair one more time.
They say the third time is the charm. Perhaps Mr. Ferris had something to do with that, because this time, with all the excited buzz around the wheel and all the money behind it, Burnham’s committee threw their hands in the air and gave in. “Fine, go build your damn wheel!” Alright, they probably didn’t say that. But in this case, George Ferris was one heck of a squeaky wheel (Ferris. Wheel. Puns.) and at long last, he got the grease.
They had little time before the fair opened, so George Ferris quickly gathered a team to start construction. He tapped engineer Luther V. Rice, a bigwig at the Union Depot & Tunnel Company, to spearhead the effort on the ground. He also revealed the full scope of his incredible vision – the exact size of the wheel, which would throw a shadow over Lady Liberty and carry thirty-six Pullman-sized cars, each with its own lunch counter and a sixty-person capacity.
It was a grand, sparkling vision on paper, but real life weaved a much different story. The winter of 1892-93 caused a myriad of delays, as did a massive carpenters strike in Chicago, and a handful of deadly accidents on other parts of the fairgrounds. It put the fear of God into the builders and engineers alike. So did the myriads of mechanical issues that came from never-before-tested calculations and building methods. By April, only one of the towers to hold the wheel in place had risen from the earth.
Then came the rains. In mid-April, rain saturated the entire fair grounds as well as half of Chicago. The deluge made biblical chaos at the half-constructed wheel site, where excavations for the towers became flooded and practically unusable. Not even twenty-four-hour pumps could keep up with the madness. Although the opening date for the fair loomed just days away, George’s crazy wheel was nowhere close to ready.
The Chicago World’s Columbian Exhibition, or Chicago World’s Fair, opened on May 1, 1893. Yet its star attraction remained only half built. June dawned before workers at the wheel placed the completed structure, minus the cars, on its monstrous tower mounts. It teetered high above Chicago at 264 feet, conquering the city’s tallest skyscraper and dwarfing everything else in a visible radius.
Then came the wheel’s first rotation on June 9. It flung a rain shower of loose hardware, and it released a mighty squeal from the very questionable braking system, but it didn’t topple or take any lives – a monumental achievement, since the whole venture had rested on calculations alone. No one knew how the steel and iron would respond to that kind of stress. Engineers remained unsure if the almost 30,000 bolts holding the 100,000+ pieces of hardware together could sustain the pressure.
Be that as it may, the turning wheel caused so much excitement that several fair personnel, including performers, engineers, and workers, climbed aboard the bare planks where the cars would eventually rest. As the wheel took them around, they shouted, cheered, and blasted jolly tunes on brass instruments. Mrs. Ferris, who had come in her husband’s stead to watch the first turn, beamed with pride (safely on the ground).
The news of the successful test rotation must have been a relief to George Ferris, whose pet wheel project had ground enough gears in his head. Burnham continually pestered him about the past due completion date, debts to suppliers still hadn’t been paid, and mechanical problems continued to flare up one after the other. By the time it made its first rotation, Ferris had allegedly told his man on the ground to “turn the wheel or tear it off the tower.” A statement proving just how much our passions can also be a pain in the backside.
At least one test had passed, but the cars still needed mounted, and Ferris wouldn’t waste any more time. From his office in Pittsburg, he fired off a telegram to his Chicago team. He congratulated them for the success of the first turn, but he also asked “that you rush the putting in of cars working day and night.” In other words – no time for celebrations, we’ve got a job to finish.
What a job, too. Each of the thirty-six cars carried a weight tag of thirteen tons. When loaded full of passengers, it would add 200,000 pounds of extra weight to a wheel already plagued with a million question marks. Two days after the wheel’s first turn, six cars hung from it, and the engineers decided to try some passengers.
The first volunteer was an adamant Mrs. Ferris. Workers herded her and a handful of others into the car while one of the wheel’s lead engineers, W.F. Gronau, conducted a thorough inspection. Once he did everything in his power to assure a safe ride, he tossed the dice and stepped on board. “I felt squeamish,” he admitted, “yet I could not refuse to take the trip.”
Conductors closed and secured the car door (although it had no windows or security bars), and the wheel jerked into motion. Groans and cranking noises stabbed the nerves of already jittery passengers. About half-way up, the entire wheel shuddered and came to a stop. The passengers threw each other nervous glances while Gronau peered down below. Unable to contain their excitement, a mob of passengers had descended on the second car, and the wheel engineer had decided to let them board.
When the wheel jolted back into motion, the first car began a fast ascent towards the peak. “It seemed as if everything was dropping away from us… Standing at the side of the car and looking into the network of iron rods multiplied the peculiar sensation…” I think Grenau referred to an early case of motion sickness, but his stomach stayed strong and so did the other passengers. They soon reached the highest point of the wheel, and a lively Mrs. Ferris gave a resounding cheer.
Gronau, while the wheel creaked and the breeze tussled his hair, found himself speechless. “It was a most beautiful sight… the whole fair grounds laid before you,” he later penned. “The harbor was dotted with vessels of every description, which appeared mere specks from our exalted position, and the reflected rays of the beautiful sunset cast a gleam upon the surrounding scenery, making a picture lovely to behold…. All conversation stopped, and all were lost in admiration of this grand sight.”
Over the next few days, the wheel’s crew fastened on the remaining cars at a frantic pace. Gronau completed countless final inspections in preparation for full loads of passengers. Then, late in the afternoon of June 21, 1893, George Ferris’s vision became a stunning and complete reality. All thirty-six cars gleamed from the shining wheel, and Burnham gave clearance to begin accepting paying passengers.
The first official Ferris Wheel ride was nothing short of a spectacle. Each car quickly brimmed to capacity. The entire Iowa State Marching Band loaded into one of them and kept things lively with their instruments. The Mayor arrived, as did the entire Chicago city council and most of the fair’s organizers and officials. George Ferris himself had finally arrived from Pittsburg, and he gave a rousing speech from a podium erected in the shadow of his creation. The man “with wheels in his head” had really showed everyone up for calling him crazy. He gave mad props to his wife too, who not only supported him all the way, but also risked life and limb to be one of the first passengers.
For the entire rest of the day and late into the night, only stopping to load and unload, Ferris’ wonder wheel rolled and rolled, taking thousands of squealing passengers on the rides of their lives. Despite the staggering weight, not a single beam struggled. No bolts came loose. The construction and calculations proved sound. In one mind-blowing evening, the Eiffel Tower of Paris had met its circular match.
In its first two weeks alone, the Ferris wheel garnered over 61,000 ticket sales. While a few panic attacks ensued from height jitters and claustrophobia, most of the stories emerging from the wheel were enchanting. Countless couples got engaged in the charming wheel cars, and a few lucky passengers snuck in full-blown wedding ceremonies on top of the world.
By the fair’s end, George Ferris, whom everyone had once called crazy, earned more than $200,000 dollars in ticket sales for the World Columbian Exposition, and he got to pocket half. He also earned a coveted place in history, as his wheel eventually took firm root in American and world culture. In today’s modern era, Ferris Wheels only seem to get more popular. High-tech versions have become central attractions in many major cities across the globe. Fair grounds continue to display their own tumbling wheels, some with extra flare like cars that flip upside down, and cars that rotate and move on their tracks.
As for the original Ferris Wheel, it remained in place until 1894, quietly watching over the city of Chicago long after the fair had ended. Ferris tried to move his creation to Chicago’s North side, but the costs of taking it down and transporting it, coupled with a nationwide depression, hit his interests hard. So did the many lawsuits from his unpaid debts. By 1896, the strain had ended his marriage and lost Ferris ownership of his own creation. He died later that year from Typhoid fever at thirty-seven – a very sad ending for the bright, bold engineer who refused to ignore the wheels in his head.
In 1903, a Chicago wrecking company bought his wheel at auction for just over $8,000 dollars, only to earn a staggering amount of profits when they displayed it at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. After that, they figured the wheel had reached its peak and they destroyed it for scrap in 1906.
Despite the Ferris Wheel’s somewhat sad ending, I have to appreciate the brass of that George Ferris. I mean, I’ve had plenty of nay sayers along my own journey, and I’m just trying to write and publish some books. The people who called Ferris crazy, especially in those days, had a valid point. A giant wheel? Human passengers? Thousands of tons in weight? Are you kidding me? Yet, George Ferris knew he could make the wheel in his head a reality. When everyone else said, “no you can’t,” he just said – “watch me.”
Perhaps there’s a lesson in that. If someone calls you crazy, just work harder. Let them enjoy the show. Whether it’s writing a book, pursuing a passion project, travelling, skydiving, or building a giant crazy death wheel – the sky, so much higher than 264 feet, is truly the limit. Even if you don’t quite make it, you can still take one hell of a ride.
George Ferris’ Grand Idea – J. Glatzer
Devil in the White City – E. Larson
Smithsonian Magazine – “the Brief History of the Ferris Wheel”
All photos by M.B. Henry – please enjoy more by viewing my photo gallery.