Everything was of gargantuan proportions at the fair that commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of America. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 included the first display of George Westinghouse’s alternating current generator, plush Pullman railroad cars and the Linotype machine.
The Exposition covered 686 acres of reclaimed swamp land in Jackson Park, Chicago, with canals and lagoons interlacing buildings. Frederick Law Olmsted was the landscape architect, and the chief architects were John W. Root and Daniel H. Burnham. It was called “The White City” because the main buildings were finished in plaster and fiber to glisten white in the sun and give the impression of marble.
The fair featured extravagant use of electric lights, using more electricity than the city of Chicago at that time. Dedication exercises were held in October 1892, and the fair ran May 1 through Oct. 30, 1893. It was visited by 27 million people, who had the chance to ride the world’s first Ferris wheel.
George Washington Gale Ferris was born in Galesburg, Ill., graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute of Troy, N.Y., and was superintendent of some of the largest steel bridges in the U.S. The idea of a titanic wheel came to him “while he was taking a chop dinner in Chicago in the latter part of 1892,” said the “Pictorial History of the United States,” written by John Clark Ridpath and published shortly after the Exposition. “Before he quitted his seat at the table, he had completed the design of the wheel almost as it now stands, and submitted it to some brother engineers who promptly declared the idea preposterous.” Ferris forged ahead against the other engineers’ advice and obtained the concession for the wheel on Dec. 16, 1892, after strong opposition from the World’s Fair Directory.
To start construction, excavations 35 feet deep were made to secure a sufficiently solid footing, 20 feet of that through quicksand. The central shaft, 45 feet long and 32 inches in diameter and weighing 70 tons, was forged at Bethlehem Iron Works in Pennsylvania. The shaft was swung into the tower sockets, and workers then began fitting the circular frame, which comprised two rims, a wheel within a wheel.
The wheel carried 36 cars holding 60 people each, according to “The United States Encyclopedia of History,” although “Pictorial History” says they carried 50 people, for a total capacity of 2,160 people. It weighed 250 tons and was driven by a 1,000-hp engine. The completed wheel was set in motion on June 21, 1893, and no stoppage for alteration of any kind was necessary. “Pictorial History” shows a photo of the wheel and another from inside a car about halfway up the wheel’s circuit.
“Review of Reviews” of September 1893, quoted in “Pictorial History,” says, “It is not easy for the mind to grasp the stupendous nature of this undertaking. The wheel itself is 250 feet in diameter; at its highest point it is 268 feet above the earth. That is to say, if Bunker Hill monument were used as a yardstick to measure it, the towering monolith would fall short fifty feet.”
“Occasionally there comes a man apprehensive that the wheel might be unevenly loaded; that too many on one side might cause trouble. … A fly on a driving wheel is not a serious load — a swarm of them, for that matter. The ego in mankind makes it hard to realize that people on this great wheel are hardly more than so many flies. The giant steel axle at the centre carries a revolving weight of one thousand three hundred tons. It could carry six times that many, or eight thousand tons, with almost equal ease. Now, this wheel loaded to its full capacity of two thousand one hundred would only have a human freight of about one hundred and fifty tons, or hardly a tenth the mere weight of the wheel itself.”
“Pictorial History” concludes, “It is gratifying to American pride to know that Mr. Ferris’ immense tension-wheel achieved a great success as an enterprise, as well as proved his original claim — almost unanimously disputed by civil engineers — that the principle of the tension wheel is capable of nearly indefinite extension. That is to say, it would be practically as safe and easy to set up a similar wheel 500 feet in diameter as one half that size.”
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