Coaster Kingdom


The Ferris Wheel has always occupied a strange and unique position in the amusement industry. It doesnít provide the thrills of a roller coaster, and has little of the intimidating qualities of other rides, but it nevertheless occupies an exclusive place in the global psyche.

To many, no major park or fair is complete without this most iconic of rides, and in recent times, they have managed to break away from the rest of the amusement industry, and have started to appear in places that would never have seemed plausible just one short decade ago.


George Washington Gale Ferris. Credit: J.G. Ferris

George Washington Gale Ferris was born in Galesburg, Illinois in 1859, but his family left in 1864, intending to go to California. An economic crisis caused by the American Civil War meant they didnít have the money to complete the journey, and instead the family settled in Nevadaís Carson Valley, where his father, George Snr, bought a ranch.

They stayed for six years, during which time George Jr fell in love with the rancher lifestyle. One thing he found particularly fascinating was the Carson Riverís large water wheel at Cradlebaugh Bridge, a contraption that triggered a lifelong passion for engineering.

When the family left the ranch, they moved to Carson City, where George Snr embarked on a project to landscape the city, the results of which can still be seen today. In 1875, George Jr moved to Oakland to attend the California Military Academy, and then to New York where, in 1881, he was awarded a degree in civil engineering from Rensselear Polytechnic School.

It was here than he met Margaret Ann Beatty, whom he married in 1882. He initially worked in the contracting office of a local rail company, but then began his solo engineering career by designing bridges and tunnels. The increased use of steel saw him move from New York to Pittsburgh, the centre of the American steel industry, where he founded G.W.G. Ferris & Co, a company that tested and inspected metals, primarily for bridges and railways.

Eiffel Tower

The Ferris Wheel, like the Eiffel Tower, was envisaged as being the centrepiece for a city expo

In 1891, he was invited to an Engineerís banquet in Chicago. One of the other attendees was Daniel H. Burnham, one of the directors in charge of planning the forthcoming 1893 Colombian Exhibition. During the eveningís proceedings, Burnham invited the assembled engineers to design a landmark for the event, similar in stature to the Eiffel Tower, which had been such a spectacular centrepiece for the 1889 Paris International Exposition.

Gustave Eiffel himself offered to build a bigger tower for the fair, but this was rejected, partly because the organisers wanted something unique, and partly because of protests that the project should showcase American design and ingenuity.

Ferris later told reporters that the idea of the wheel came to him over dinner one afternoon, where he immediately decided many of rideís finer details, including itís size, how many cars it would have, and how it would be built. Other engineers and the fair chiefs had little faith in the idea, with many stating that Chicagoís famously windy skies would prevent the ride from working properly, and possibly destroy the structure completely.

Nevertheless, Ferris spent $25,000 of his own money to prove that it could work, and eventually succeeding in gaining permission to proceed, only for it to be almost immediately withdrawn. Finally, a compromise was reached whereby Ferris was refused funding, but allowed to go ahead if he undertook the financial risk. Continues...

Coaster Kingdom Magazine
Issue 09: Aug 2005

Issue 09
The Wheel of Fortune
Coaster Kingdom looks at the colourful history of the Ferris Wheel