Ferris Wheels…They’re Popping Up Everywhere!
I had a typical Midwestern childhood insofar as I never walked anywhere uphill both ways, I took white Christmases for granted, and, in all of my tragically brief summers, I never missed a county fair. The third week of July promised a muddy midway, baby animals, lemonade shakeups, rigged carnival games, and, towering above it all, a Ferris wheel.
For the modest price of three tear-off tickets apiece, my father, my sister and I would get the thrill of riding up and over the top of that wheel in a rusty bucket with red paint flaking from its exterior. The whole contraption was invariably operated by a hairy-armed man of few words and fewer teeth, and the guardrail he would slam into place would not have prevented my sister and me from committing suicide by slouch. From the top we could see three water towers. Up there, the noise of the other carnival rides was less cacophonous, the aroma of livestock and deep fried corn dogs blew away, and we were suspended in midair, certain that our little bucket was going to break free of its cogs and plummet to the gravel below. It never did.
George Ferris is credited with having invented the Ferris wheel for Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. Ferris’ design was adapted from William Somers fifty-foot “roundabout,” in New Jersey. Somers invention may have been influenced in turn by Antonio Manguino’s “pleasure wheel,” the first American version of an attraction that had existed in Europe and India since the 17th Century. Oh, but leave it to Chicagoans to take credit for just about anything that was new to the universe in 1893.
I don’t mean to undermine the significance of the fair. The dishwasher, Cracker Jack, the telaugraph (the world’s first fax machine), moving sidewalks, Juicy Fruit, the clasp-locker (a.k.a. the zipper), the blue ribbon on Pabst Beer, inspiration for Frank Baum’s Emerald City and the word “midway” all debuted in Chicago in 1893, as did commemorative stamps, pressed pennies and pancake mix. Even without the Ferris wheel, Chicagoans would have plenty to brag about, but it was the wheel that proved the greatest “invention” of them all.
It rose 264 feet into the sky, withstood a tornado, and could carry 2,160 passengers at once. Each passenger paid fifty cents for a twenty minute ride. Over six months, the Ferris wheel brought in more money than any other attraction at the fair. More than a century later, cities worldwide continue to build on that success. Zippers are great, washing machines have their place, but the Ferris wheel harbors a majesty and mystique and an ability to separate people from their money that cannot be outmatched… except perhaps by other Ferris wheels.
Japan unveiled the Cosmo Clock in 1989. It dwarfs the original Chicago wheel at a height of 353 feet. The 443-foot London Eye opened to the public in 2000. The Star of Nanchang in China surpassed it by 82 feet upon completion in 2006. Two years later, the Singapore Flyer and the Melbourne Star carried their first passengers. The Flyer took over the title of tallest at 541 feet. The Star is a demure 394 but still the tallest in the southern hemisphere. At present, the Las Vegas High Roller is the tallest working Ferris wheel. Opened in 2014, it rises 550 feet over the Strip. Soon, however, it will fall into third place behind the New York Wheel and the Dubai Eye, both slated to be finished in 2017. The cost of constructing these amusements lies in the hundreds of millions of US dollars. What’s more, engineers for the projects are sought far and wide. The Dutch firm Starneth is behind both the New York and Dubai projects. The same firm out of London engineered both the Singapore Flier and the High Roller. The Melbourne Star is Japanese, and it took six European nations working in tandem to set the London Eye in motion.
As cities build bigger, brighter, fancier wheels, quaint depictions of county fairs, Coney Island and even the original Chicago Wheel are transformed in our imaginations into the towering marvels that are altering skylines from Seattle to Melbourne. And why not? Wheels bring revenue. According to the London Eye’s web site, over the course of fifteen years, the attraction only increased in popularity. It now reigns supreme as “the UK’s number one paid for attraction.” The craze has survived for 123 years to date. It has outlasted the telaugraph, an invention that was actually useful. So there is nothing mysterious in this ongoing global one-upmanship. Rather, the mystery lies in us. What is it about a giant sideways carousel that so appeals to us that we are willing to pay 50 cents, three tear-off tickets or –for a daytime trip around the High Roller– $26.95?
It can’t be the height. The last 123 years have seen the advent of skydiving, bungee jumping, hand gliding, and zip lining, and still the Ferris wheel has held its ground. It can’t be the danger. Enclosed gondolas have replaced rusty buckets. Perhaps it’s in our blood; an innate desire, passed down to us from ancestors who found themselves in Chicago in 1893 or New Jersey shortly before that or in 17th century Europe or India. It is an irresistible need to escape into the atmosphere, leaving behind the stink and sound of the city below, to gaze out at the landscape as though we have no connection to it. For a moment we are bigger, wiser, and quite literally on top of the world.
And what of Chicago? The humble birthplace of an international phenomenon? Well, it’s got enough to brag about. While it will have a shiny new Ferris wheel for the Navy Pier Centennial later this year, The Second City is content to have had the first wheel if not the best. Chicago’s Dutch Wheels project, a petite 196-foot ride, is a perfect fit for a Midwestern city with a healthy ego and a flair for tradition.