“Make no small plans”: the Ferris Wheel

Ferris wheel at the Midway Plaisance. 1893. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection.

It’s pretty well known amongst Chicago History Buffs that the Ferris Wheel debuted on the Midway Plaisance during the 1893 Columbian Exposition. The Ferris Wheel, brainchild of Galesburg-born George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., was the result of architect Daniel Burnham’s challenge to build something to rival Paris’ Eiffel Tower, built as the centerpiece of 1889’s Exposition Universelle, celebrating the centennial of the French Revolution. On this day in history, October 16th 1892, the Ferris Wheel was given the go-ahead for its inclusion in the Columbian Exposition.

Portrait of George Washington Gale Ferris. c. 1893. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection.

“Make no little plans” Burnham said to a group of architects and engineers at dinner. While eating at Chicago chop house with the same group of architects and engineers Ferris hit on the idea; “I remember remarking that I would build a wheel, a monster. I got some paper and began to sketch it out. I fixed the size, determined the construction, the number of cars we would run, the number of people it would hold, what we would charge, the plan of stopping six times in the first revolution and loading, and then making a complete turn-in short, before the dinner was over I had sketched almost the entire detail” Ferris recalled in an interview.

Worker climbing Ferris Wheel spokes. 1893. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection.
Ferris wheel at the World’s Columbian World Fair. 1893. Chicago History Museum. Prints and Photographs Collection. Photograph by J. Maul.

There were wooden wheels that had toured carnival circuits, patented designs even, but steel was a considerable upgrade and had the same modernist industrial touch as the Eiffel tower’s steel beams. Ferris, working out of Pittsburgh was known as an engineer experimenting in steel- to make a steel structure like this- that moved,- and transport the 100,000 parts of it a third of the way across the country for reassembly, was a significant challenge. At the time of its creation the 71 ton axel was the largest single piece of steel in the world.

For more on the Ferris Wheel, click here, and more on the 1893 Columbian Exposition here. Huge thanks to the Chicago History Museum for their fantastic photos of the original wheel.