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Ferris Wheels (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

I celebrate today the greatest engineer born on Valentine's Day. He made his mark in 1893 at the World's Fair in Chicago.

As the fair prepared to open, its organizers searched for an engineering achievement to surpass the Eiffel Tower. Today we think of it as a slice of turn of the century Paris, but at the time the tower was the latest in modern engineering. It stated boldly that the French were prepared to construct the bridges and buildings of the twentieth century.

So, the Chicago Fair's organizing committee wanted some distinctive feature. "Mere bigness," they said, would not be enough; instead, they searched for "something novel, original, daring and unique" to show the "prestige and standing" of American engineers. They already had a chocolate Venus de Milo and a 22,000 pound cheese in the Wisconsin Pavilion, but they wanted more.

A 31 year old engineer approached them with an idea. He'd been hired to inspect the steel in all of the Fair's buildings, and he wanted to build on that expertise to create a monument in steel. At first the committee turned down his idea as "outlandish" and "too fragile." Undeterred he wrote them a letter spelling out his plan: "I have on hand," he said, "a great project for the World's Fair in Chicago. I am going to build a vertically revolving wheel 250 feet in diameter." His name, of course, was George Washington Gale Ferris. His proposal became what we now call a "Ferris Wheel."

What a spectacular monument he built: Using 100,000 separate parts he created a wheel as high as the tallest skyscraper in Chicago - even higher than the Crown of the Statue of Liberty. The wheel's axle alone weighed 140,000 pounds, and the its 36 cars, each the size of a railway car, carried 60 people. Yet it was the wheel's lightness that startled people: Its rim seemed to float in the air held up only by gossamer steel spokes, like a bicycle wheel.

Ferris created not only a monument to America's engineering prowess, but also a new aesthetic experience: As the wheel descended - it took about 20 minutes for a complete revolution - the whole fair ground near Lake Michigan slowly opened into view.

This ride succeed in bring notice and, more importantly, paying patrons to the World's Fair. Even today Ferris Wheels are used to celebrate big events.

For example, when the British needed to welcome the new century they created a 450 foot tall Ferris Wheel renamed, though, the Millennium Wheel. And engineers in Singapore are creating a 100 million dollar wheel that'll take passengers 560 feet off the ground, and give them a spectacular view of neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia. Thus meeting the standard for sepectacle set by George Ferris with his Ferris Wheel in the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

Copyright 2005 William S. Hammack Enterprises