What is more romantic than riding a Ferris wheel? Considering George W. G. Ferris, Jr. was born on Valentine’s Day in 1859, perhaps nothing. Ferris was an engineer who graduated from Rensselear Polytechnic Institute (Troy, NY) and founded the G.W.G. Ferris & Co. firm (Pittsburgh, PA) which tested and inspected metals for railroads and bridges. He is credited for creating the first large, steel amusement ride.
But was the Ferris wheel the first of its kind?
The 1893 World’s Fair was to be held in Chicago, and the fair’s organizers wanted to rival the Eiffel Tower which had been constructed for the Paris World’s Fair in 1889. Having recently ridden a fifty-foot wooden “observation roundabout,” which had been built and soon would be patented by William Somers, Farris was inspired to enter the competition with his paper-napkin drawing of an enormous park ride. The constructed 45-foot axle-wheel powered by two 1,000 horsepower steam engines was supported by two 140-foot steel towers and it carried thirty-six wooden cars, each car holding 60 passengers, 264 feet high into the air.
Because of its size, people were reticent to ride Ferris’ wheel. For safety measures, the enclosed cars were fitted with heavy iron screens, locked doors and fire equipment. Also, conductors rode in each car to answer questions and to calm nerves. During the World’s Fair, more than 1,750,000 passengers rode without incident.
- Circles in the Sky: The Life and Times of George Ferris by Richard G. Weingardt. ASCE Press, 2009
- Ferris Wheels: An Illustrated History by Norman D. Anderson. Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1992
- “The Big Ferris Wheel.” The Alleghenian, 1 July 1893. Retrieved from Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, North Side: People: George Ferris
- “The Ferris Wheel Decided to Be an Infringement of the Somers Wheel.” Atlantic City Dispatch, 19 November 1893. Retrieved from America’s Historical Newspapers
- “Ferris Wheel Profits.” The Kansas City Star. 9 November 1893. Retrieved from America’s Historical Newspapers
- “The Ferris Wheel Turns and Mrs. Ferris Gives a Toast” from The Pittsburg Commercial Gazette, 17 June 1893. Retrieved from Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, North Side: People: George Ferris
- “A Great Rush to Chicago.” New York Times, 22 June 1893. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The New York Times (1851 – 2009)
In 1893, Somers filed a lawsuit against Ferris for patent infringement; however, Ferris and his lawyers successfully argued that the Ferris Wheel and its technology differed from Somers’ wheel, and the case was dismissed. The U.S. Patent Office has issued more than 100 patents for various vertical amusement rides, but Ferris never patented his invention.
Somers, William. Roundabout. U.S. Patent 489,238, January 3, 1893 (Google Patents)
Compiled list of U.S. Patents for Ferris Wheels (Penn State)
In 1978, the American Society for Testing Materials (ASTM) formed the F24 committee to create standards for the design, testing, manufacturing, and operation of amusement park rides.
- Standard Practice for Ownership, Operation, Maintenance, and Inspection of Amusement Rides and Devices, ASTM F770, Sept. 1, 2013 (4 pages)
- Standard Practice for Measuring the Dynamic Characteristics of Amusement Rides and Devices, ASTM F2137, Aug. 1, 2013 (7 pages)
- Standard Practice for Design of Amusement Rides and Devices, ASTM F2291, Aug. 1, 2013 (52 pages)