From my regular series of Design Icons written for ABC RN Blueprint. You can find others on my main page and also on the Blueprint and Podcasts pages.
The Ferris wheel was broadcast on the 5th March 2022. You can listen to the audio here.
There’s something magical about a Ferris wheel, the ease of being lifted high above the ground. There have been designs for seats slung from a rotating frame since at least the 1500s, which were popular at fairs and festivals across Europe, but it was the strength of iron and steel in the nineteenth century that gave rise to much larger versions, like the Ferris wheel, also known as an observation wheel. They’re named after George W Ferris, a civil engineer who was interested in bridge design. The organisers of the Chicago World Columbian Exposition of 1893 wanted something that would capture the world’s attention in the way the Eiffel Tower had at the last World Fair of 1889. Ferris proposed a giant revolving wheel. Not simply seats on a frame, as earlier ones had been, his big wheel was over 80 metres high and held 36 capsules, quite closely spaced, each able to take 60 people, most of them sitting. It would take over 38,000 exhibition visitors a day on a twenty minute ride of two full rotations. As it moved elegantly round, visitors could look down over the magnificence of the exhibition park, with its grand lakes and white pavilions, one of the most sumptuous of all the world fairs.
A man called William Somers wasn’t happy. He had designed smaller wheels which had been installed in various fairgrounds in and around New York, and on which he knew George Ferris had travelled, and so he launched a lawsuit, claiming the patent for these mammoth wheels had been infringed. There were sufficient differences in the way the wheel was supported for the claim to be dismissed and so it’s Ferris who we remember today. When the Exposition ended, the wheel was removed to the well-to-do suburb of Lincoln Park, although it was seen as a vulgarity, lowering the tone, and eventually it was dismantled to be used again at the World Fair in St Louis in 1904, before being demolished. Others rose in cities around the world, like the even larger Big Wheel of Paris which was 96 metres tall, and perhaps the most famous and oldest still in use in Vienna, in the Prater park, which found such fame in Orson Welles’s film noir The Third Man in 1949.
The Wonder Wheel at Coney Island of 1920 even had an inner ring of cabins to add to the novelty. Less daunting than a rollercoaster, it was something the whole family could enjoy, a byword for leisure. Ferris would doubtless have been delighted to have set the world in a spin, and it was surely an intentional pun that his obituary of 1896 stated that he left friends ‘in mechanical and building circles all over the country’.
The Ferris wheel has now been freed from fairgrounds and has become an important city attraction around the world. In 2000, the London Eye at 135 metres tall gave the Ferris wheel the millennial stamp of approval, adding an exciting new silhouette to the city skyline, its air-conditioned cabins rotated by electric motors rather than gravity. Other cities rushed to copy, from Melbourne to Manchester by way of Singapore and Las Vegas. The largest is currently in Dubai at 250 metres high, which raises a question: while a giant observation wheel might be an asset in a low-rise setting, what’s their purpose in a city dominated by taller buildings with viewing decks? Pointless though that may seem, the Ferris wheel remains an icon of wonder and amusement, and an urban wheel of fortune.