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Chicago World's Fair Icon First Ferris Wheel

Updated on July 11, 2011


The 1889 Paris Exposition was a dazzling World’s Fair. The fair was based in Paris and some buildings were electrified, but the most dazzling part of the fair was the Eiffel Tower. It was the centerpiece of the fair and exhibited French skill in engineering and design. The tower became the symbol of France and the fair.

Paris was already a world famous, important and Chicago wasn’t. Chicago was regionally important but nationally and internationally the city was mostly famous for the fire from which it was still recovering. The fair would put Chicago on the map and an iconic structure could only help. They turned to a Illinois native for help.




Daniel H. Burnham, head of fair construction, wasn’t exactly sure what he wanted for the fair, but he was sure what he didn’t want. Burnham didn’t want to copy the French with a giant tower. He wanted something very American, stating “Mere bigness is not what is wanted. Something novel, original, daring and unique must be designed and built if American engineers are to retain their prestige and standing.”

Burnham and fair organizers turned to American engineers for ideas. George Ferris, who had moved away from Chicago while still a child, returned to the city with his idea of a rotating wheel. At first his idea was rejected, people feared the wheel would collapse, but Ferris persisted and he even got investors to pay for the wheel’s construction.


The wheel had 36 cars that each included 40 revolving chairs. It also had room for 20 standing passengers. The wheel was of all steel construction and had a central axle that, when forged, was the heaviest piece of steel ever made in the United States. The axle was 45 feet long and weighed 46 tons.

The ride lasted 10 minutes per revolution and stopped 6 times around the wheel to allow passengers on and off at the bottom. The wheel took 2 revolutions, but the second one was non stop. The ride wasn’t really a thrill ride, but a moving observation deck. The Ferris Wheel was a huge hit, it carried over 35,000 passengers a day, each paying a .50 admission fee.




Old Vienna Exhibit with Wheel in background


The Ferris Wheel made a large amount of profit for the fair, about$750,000, in which George Ferris did not share. He and his investors later sued the fair organizers for a share of the profits. But Ferris died before the case could be fully litigated. Ferris is chiefly remember for his invention of the Ferris Wheel.

The wheel itself was dismantled after the fair, and put up in another part of Chicago for a few years. The wheel then became part of the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. After that fair it was demolished with dynamite.


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    • Stigma31 profile image


      7 years ago from Kingston, ON

      Very interesting article, voted up!...a grand piece of history


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