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Monday, January 23, 2012

The View From the Top

Ocean City Ferris Wheel on the boardwalk in New Jersey.

George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. was an engineer from Pittsburgh whose firm specialized in testing and inspecting metal for use in bridges and railroads.  In 1891, the directors of the World's Columbian Exposition to be held in 1893 in Chicago, issued a challenge to American engineers.  They sought a monument for the expo that would surpass the structure built for the Paris International Exposition of 1889 - the Eiffel Tower.  They asked for something "original, daring, and unique."  Ferris was intrigued and designed a rotating wheel that would allow visitors to see the entire expo and would "out-Eiffel Eiffel."

The Ferris Wheel of the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition.

This idea was not greeted with enthusiasm, as it was thought it would be unsafe and topple over.  But Ferris obtained opinions from other established engineers, and then secured financing from local investors to cover the construction costs of $400,000.  It was built with 36 cars accommodating 2,160 people.  38,000 people rode it daily; before it was demolished in 1906 some 2.5 million people had ridden on it.  It was 264' tall and the main axle weighed 71 tons.  A ride cost 50 cents and took 20".  It closed in April of 1894 and was dismantled and stored.  The following year it was rebuilt in the Lincoln Park area where it was in use from October of 1895 to 1903, when it was again dismantled and moved to St. Louis for the 1905 World's Fair.  It was destroyed in 1906 with dynamite in a controlled explosion.

Another view of Ferris's wheel.  The 45' axle was the largest
single piece of forged steel ever made at that time.

Ferris died before settling a lawsuit he began against the 1893 Chicago Expo for his and his investors' share of the profits from the Ferris wheel.  Looks like karma may have had a hand in this, as Ferris got his idea from three wooden wheels built by William Somers in Asbury Park and Atlantic City, New Jersey, and Coney Island, New York.  Ferris had ridden the Atlantic City wheel a year before designing his. Somers had been granted a patent for a "roundabout", and sued Ferris for infringement.  But Ferris and his lawyers had prevailed by arguing that his technology was different and the case was dismissed.

A 1656 engraving of a pleasure wheel by Adam Olearius.

Drawing by En:User:Ridetheory (Wikipedia) after a 17th C. drawing.

Pleasure wheels are thought to have been invented in Bulgaria in the 17th century. The first ones had chairs suspended from large wooden rings which passengers rode as men turned the rings.  Antonio Manguino, a Frenchman, brought the idea to the U.S. in 1848, when he constructed a small wooden pleasure wheel at a fair he ran in Georgia.

The Wiener Riesenrad at Prater amusement
park in Leopoldstadt in Vienna.

In 1897, the Wierner Riesenrad (Viennese Giant Wheel) was built to honor Emperor Franz Josef I's Golden Jubilee.  From 1920 to 1984 it was the world's tallest - 212.4', and had 30 passenger cars.  It burnt down in 1944, but was reconstructed with 15 passenger cars.  It remains today one of the top tourist attractions in Vienna.

The Singapore Flyer.  Image courtesy of http://listverse.com.
Inside one of the capsules of the Singapore Flyer.

The current tallest in the world is the Singapore Flyer, which is 541'.  It has 28 air-conditioned cars that hold 28 passengers each, and have restrooms and bars within.  It opened on February 11, 2008.  The cost was based on a lucky number - 8,888 Singapore dollars (about $6,988 U.S. dollars today).  Ferris wheels are also known as observation wheels, and this one seems to nail the concept, drinks included.

The Cosmo Clock - still the world's largest clock. 
The Cosmo Clock at night.

A previous holder for title of tallest ferris wheel in the world is the Cosmo Clock, constructed in 1989 for the '89 Yokohama Expo in Yokohama, Japan.  It was the tallest from 1989, when it was constructed, until 1997.  It has 60 cars that hold 8 people, and a complete rotation takes 15".  It is still the world's largest clock.

The Tiajin Eye on the Yongle Bridge (formerly the Chihai Bridge).
The Tiajin Eye at night, reflecting on the Hai River.

One of the most unusual ferris wheels is the Tianjin Eye.  It is 390' and is built on the Yongle Bridge crossing the Hai River in Tianjin, China.  Built in 2007, it is the only ferris wheel in the world built on a bridge.  It can handle 770 riders an hour in its 48 cars, and takes 30" for a complete rotation.

The Pacific Wheel at the Santa Monica pier.  Image courtesy of listverse.com.

A famous ferris wheel that has appeared in numerous films, TV commercials, and music videos, is the Pacific Wheel.  Located at the Santa Monica Pier at the end of Route 66, it was built in 1996 and featured 5,392 light bulbs.  It stood for 12 years, then was sold on eBay for $132,400 of which half was donated to the Special Olympics.  Its replacement is almost identical, but has 160,000 energy-efficient light bulbs and is the world's only solar-powered wheel.  It is 90' tall, and stands just 130' from the Pacific Ocean.

The Big-O, with the Thunder Dolphin going through it.  Image courtesy of listverse.com.

The Big-O is in Tokyo, Japan, and has the distinction of having no center axle, no spokes, and no internal support structure.  Instead, the wheel is held up by two side supports.  To make things even more interesting, Japan's tallest and fastest roller coaster, the Thunder Dolphin, runs through the middle of its 200' rim.

The London Eye.
Inside an "Eye" pod.

Opened at the millennium on New Year's Eve, the London Eye is the world's third largest ferris wheel, and the largest in the western hemisphere.  Supported on only one of its two sides, it is a cantilever wheel which provides riders with a pretty much unobstructed view of London.  The cars are attached to the outside rim by rotating circular mounts so that a full 360-degree panoramic view can be seen from the top.  It is slow enough that it doesn't have to stop for passengers to embark and disembark, and a full rotations takes 30".  It carries 10,000 riders a day, or more than 3 million annually.  The cost is £14.50 (roughly $22.60 U.S.)

But perhaps the most famous and beloved in the U.S., or at least the east coast, is the Wonder Wheel.  This was built in 1920 in Coney Island, and along with Nathan's hot dogs is an icon.  It is 150' tall with 24 cars that hold 144 riders.  It was built by the Eccentric Ferris Wheel Company.  This type of wheel is known as an eccentric wheel, as some of the cars slide on rails between the hub and rim as the wheel turns, instead of being fixed to the rim.  Mickey's Fun Wheel at Disneyland was inspired by the Wonder Wheel.

Sky Whirl in Gurnee, Illinois, 2000.

Today taller and more technologically advanced ferris wheels are being designed and built.  It was announced last year that there will be a 550' one to be built in Las Vegas.  Moscow announced a proposal to build a 722' one, but the timeframe and site have yet to be determined.  There are also double and triple wheels, Sky Whirl being the first triple wheel, debuting at Marriott's Great America parks in California and Illinois simultaneously in 1976.  We are probably most familiar with transportable ferris wheels that can be mounted on trailers and moved intact or easily dismantled and rebuilt.  There are notable ones in this category, but most of us have seen the small ones that can be found in traveling fairs.

The Roue de Paris, one of the most famous transportable
ferris wheels, here pictured in the Netherlands in 2005.
It has operated in France, England, Belgium, and Thailand
as well as the Netherlands.  It can be erected in 72 hours
and dismantled in 60.  It uses a water ballast for a stable base.

Bigger and higher seem to be the goals in ferris wheel designs, but faster is left to that other amusement ride - roller coasters.  To have a commanding view of a location, ferris wheels are the way to go!

Unless otherwise noted, images courtesy of Wikipedia.

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