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George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.: Inventor of the Ferris Wheel

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George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.

George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.

The Inventor of the Ferris Wheel

George Ferris was an American engineer. He is best known for being the inventor of the Ferris Wheel. In 1893, he built his Ferris Wheel creation for the World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois.

Once it was finished, the original Ferris Wheel had a maximum height of 264 feet above the ground. The diameter was 250 feet with a circumference of 790 feet. It had 36 fully-enclosed gondolas. Each of them was able to carry up to 40 passengers. The wheel weighed approximately 1,300 tons.

Early Years

George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. was born in Galesburg, Illinois on February 14, 1859. The town was founded by his grandfather named George Washington Gale. His mother's name was Martha Edgerton Hyde and his father's name was George Washington Gale Ferris Sr. He had an older brother named Frederick Hyde. At the time of his birth, the family had a dairy farm. They eventually sold it and moved to the Carson Valley in Nevada.


In 1875, Ferris left Nevada for Oakland, California. There he attended the California Military Academy. He graduated there in 1876. Ferris then went to Troy, New York, and attended the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He graduated with a degree in Civil Engineering in 1881. When he attended the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Ferris became a charter member of the Chi Phi Fraternity. He also became a member of the Rensselaer Society of Engineers.

Professional Career

Ferris started working in the railroad industry after he graduated. He showed a strong interest in building bridges. Ferris eventually started his own company in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was called G.W.G. Ferris & Co. His company would inspect and test metals for bridge builders and railroads.


Ferris was attracted to Chicago when he knew the World's Colombian Exposition would be held there in 1893. A challenge was issued in 1891 by the planners of the World's Colombian Exposition. They asked American engineers to create a monument to the fair that could surpass the Eiffel Tower. The planners said they wanted something unique and original as well as daring. Ferris proposed the creation of a wheel that would enable visitors to see the entire exhibition. The planners didn't like the idea and believed any design for a rotating wheel over the ground would cost too much and never be safe.


Ferris was not discouraged by what the planners said about his idea. A few weeks after meeting with them, Ferris returned with impressive endorsements from well-known and respected engineers. He also had a number of investors willing to cover the $400,000 required for starting the construction of the wheel. The planning committee reviewed the information provided by Ferris and then agreed with his idea.

Original Ferris Wheel being built

Original Ferris Wheel being built

Construction of the Ferris Wheel

Ferris went to work immediately when he was told to construct his wheel. He recruited more investors, hired additional engineers, and spent $25,000 of his own money to have safety studies performed. Over 100,000 parts went into making the Ferris' wheel. It had an axle that weighed over 89,000 pounds. It was necessary to hoist it onto two towers over 139 feet in the air. The Ferris wheel was the single largest piece of steel that had been made in the United States at that time. The final cost of it was $750,000. The first people to ride the Ferris Wheel were the Mayor of Chicago, a marching band, as well as Ferris and his wife. It operated perfectly and had no safety or technical issues.

Ferris Wheel at World's Colombian Exposition

Ferris Wheel at World's Colombian Exposition

People waiting in line to get on the Ferris Wheel

People waiting in line to get on the Ferris Wheel

When the World's Colombian Exposition opened, the Ferris Wheel would carry over 37,000 passengers each day. Each ride involved two complete revolutions and this took approximately 20 minutes. Six stops were made during the first rotation to permit passengers to enter and exit. The second rotation was non-stop and lasted for nine minutes. The cost of riding the Ferris Wheel was 50 cents. More than 2 million passengers rode the Ferris Wheel during the World's Colombian Exposition.

Remains of original Ferris Wheel after being destroyed

Remains of original Ferris Wheel after being destroyed

End of First Ferris Wheel

When the World's Colombian Exposition was over, the Ferris Wheel was dismantled and then moved to North Clark Street in Chicago. It was then sold to St. Louis Missouri for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The original Ferris Wheel would be demolished on May 11, 1906. To accomplish this 200 pounds of dynamite were used. It was then sold for scrap metal.


In November 1896, a few months after George Washington Gale Ferris Jr.'s wife left him, he died. The cause of his death was typhoid fever. He was 37 years old when he died and was facing bankruptcy. His body was cremated but his ashes were not collected for over a year. In 1998, Ferris was added to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Alumni Hall of Fame.


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The Smithsonian Magazine

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Readmikenow


Readmikenow (author) on February 15, 2021:

Fran, thanks. I agree with you.

fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on February 15, 2021:

What a wonderful article about Ferris Wheels. So sad he died so young as he was certainly talented. Thank you for your article.

Readmikenow (author) on February 15, 2021:

Dora, thanks. I think his accomplishments during his life are worth remembering. Yeah, I wonder what he would have done if he would have lived longer.

Readmikenow (author) on February 15, 2021:

Liz, thanks. It was an amazing story.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on February 14, 2021:

Gone so soon! Wondering what other contribution he would have made but impressed that his short life was productive. Kudos to his determination. Thanks, Mike, for bringing this account of George Washington Gale Ferris Jr's life and work.

Liz Westwood from UK on February 14, 2021:

This is a fascinating article. It is packed with interesting information and great illustrations. I thought it was sad that such a talented man died so young.