Let the Spinning Wheel Spin

Ferris Wheel
Ferris wheel, 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago

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
Circles in the Sky: The Life and Times of George Ferris
Engineering Library TA140.F455 W45 2009




W. Somers Roundabout
William Somers “Roundabout”
U.S. Patent 489238 (January 3, 1893)


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.