The Untold Truth About Carnivals

The first Ferris Wheel was designed to be Chicago’s Eiffel Tower

One of the many things to debut at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair Midway Park was the Ferris Wheel, an amusement that would become a staple of nearly every carnival since. The Wheel itself has a weird and dramatic history befitting its designer’s goals, which were to erect a monument in Chicago that would rival the Eiffel Tower.

Now, this wasn’t the first such ride to exist, but George Washington Ferris Jr.’s (yes his real name) wheel was a whole other level from earlier dinky roundabouts. It was 250 feet in diameter, and its 71-ton axle was the world’s largest hollow forged piece of metalwork in history at that point. Now, that’s nowhere near as tall as the Eiffel Tower, but until old Eiffel can unfold into a transforming robot, the Ferris Wheel had the advantage of impossibly massive moving parts as a testament to its technological legacy.

Ferris pretty much bankrupted himself running safety tests. He was so broke when he died that the funeral director put a lien on his remains because he had no other assets left to seize, and it took 15 years of litigation before the ashes were turned over to his brother. The wheel itself was used again in the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair and then was dynamited to bits two years later because it was too expensive to maintain.

So yeah, there isn’t exactly a happy ending to this tale. However, it’s a testament to Ferris’s grand vision that even a tribute wheel erected on Chicago’s Navy Pier in 1995 it was still 100 feet shorter than his original design.