If you’ve ever spent a day or evening out at Pacific Park, you’ve likely ridden on the iconic Pacific Wheel. Once you get to the top of the Wheel and look out at the coastline, it’s easy to become so overwhelmed that you can only hold your breath in awe and hope the moment lasts forever.
But the Pacific Wheel is just one of many incredible and intricate Ferris wheels. With all the fun, joy, and beauty involved in riding the Wheel, it’s easy to forget how it came to be! Here, we’ll tell you the amazing tale of the first Ferris wheel. We’ll also give you a peek at the history of the Ferris Wheel, including a look at the man who made it all possible.
Yes, you should capitalize “Ferris” because it’s a proper noun—it’s the name of the ride’s inventor.
The history of the first Ferris wheel dates back to 1893, the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago—also known as the Chicago World’s Fair. This well-known exhibition attracted 26 million visitors from the time it opened on May 1, 1893, until the day it closed—October 30 the same year. And of those 26 million, more than 1.4 million got the chance to ride the first Ferris wheel!
Just imagine being one of those first passengers on June 21, 1893, boarding one of 36 cars for a 20-minute ride that took you almost 264 feet into the air. Each car could hold 60 passengers. But while you might have been packed like sardines, you still had a first-rate view of the fairgrounds and lands around the World’s Fair.
You could look out and see recreations of buildings from around the world, as well as the largest and latest inventions. Beyond the structures, you could see Lake Michigan and even surrounding states.
A marvelous invention, the Ferris Wheel could lift you above the sometimes-polluted skies and give you a chance to breathe deeply and see farther than you might ever travel. It’s no wonder so many people paid their 50-cent admission fee to board this impressive ride!
Getting to Know George Ferris Jr.
So, who invented the Ferris wheel? The honor goes to an engineer named George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., who was 32 years old when he came up with the ingenious idea. In 1892, he submitted his design to Daniel Burnham, the Director of Works for the Fair.
At the time, Director Burnham was seeking something daring and unique to outdo the Eiffel Tower at the 1889 Paris Exhibition. Unfortunately, Ferris’ wheel design wasn’t an immediate hit. In fact, several Fair Committee members refused to approve it over the fear that it would collapse.
You might look back on their concern and wonder what all the fuss was about. Clearly it could hold its weight. After all, it was intended to transport as many as 2,160 people at a time! But this was a novel invention at the time, and the Committee’s fear was natural.
Eventually, however, Ferris gathered endorsements from other engineers and spent his own money—as much as $25,000!—to have engineers thoroughly investigate its design safety.
Ferris’ wheel design got the green light on December 16, 1892, and from that moment on it would forever become known as the Ferris Wheel.
However, what became of George Ferris Jr. is a sad tale. After the World’s Fair ended in late October 1893, Ferris became caught up in lawsuits about debts and money he never received from the Fair’s profits. He fought for his money until late 1895, when he was forced to declare bankruptcy. Later, he developed typhoid fever and died prematurely in November 1896—at the young age of 37.
Long Live the Ferris Wheel!
The original Ferris Wheel moved around to several new locations after the end of the Chicago World’s Fair. It moved to Lincoln Park and later to St. Louis for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. It met its end as scrap in 1906, but ultimately saw reinvention after reinvention and reconstruction after reconstruction from inventors and engineers around the world.
While Ferris didn’t live long enough to receive his well-deserved recognition, his creation has become an iconic part of American culture. Indeed, it quickly became the focal point at amusement parks, and today retains its pride of place at entertainment destinations—like at Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier!
To honor Ferris’ genius, we capitalize the F in Ferris Wheel. Every time you take a spin on the Pacific Wheel, you get to enjoy an invention that’s been around since 1893. Back then, Ferris was a man on a mission—and he succeeded! His Ferris Wheel design brought Chicago and all of America into the world’s view.
In the end, Ferris bestowed upon us a rotating masterpiece that takes us skyward bound and gifts us with amazing views and experiences.
Iconic Ferris Wheels From Around the World:
- 1. Melbourne Star in Melbourne, Australia
- 2. Pacific Wheel in Santa Monica, California
- 3. Centennial Wheel in Chicago, Illinois
- 4. High Roller in Las Vegas, Nevada
- 5. Tianjin Eye in Tianjin, China
- 6. Big O in Tokyo, Japan
- 7. Wiener Riesenrad in Vienna, Austria
- 8. Niagara SkyWheel in Niagara Falls, Ontario
- 9. London Eye in London, England
- 10. Singapore Flyer in Singapore
The next time you visit Pacific Park on the Santa Monica Pier, take a few moments to admire and appreciate the Wheel from ground level before hitching a ride on one of the gondola seats. Once you’re moving around the Wheel, think back to how those passengers in 1893 must have felt on their first ride. George Ferris Jr. may have been a 19th-century man, but his idea and vision for something extraordinary stayed the course and continues to capture hearts well into the 21st century.