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A Year: Day to Day Men: 21st of June, Solar Year 2018

Pastel Study in Blues and Pinks

The original Ferris wheel opened to the public on June 21, 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exposition.

George Washington Gate Ferris Jr. was a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a Pittsburgh bridge-builder. He began his career in the railroad industry and then pursued an interest in bridge building. Ferris understood the growing need for structural steel and founded G.W.G. Ferris & Co. in Pittsburgh, a firm that tested and inspected metals for railroads and bridge builders.

The buttressed steel wheel that Ferris designed was truly original—so much so that the structure’s design had to be derived from basic assumptions because no one actually had experience constructing a machine of this size. By the winter of 1892, Ferris had the acquired the $600,000 in funding he needed but had just four months of the coldest winter in living memory to complete construction before the expo opened. To meet the deadline, Ferris split the wheel’s construction among several local machine shops and constructed individual component sets congruently and assembled everything on-site.

Construction crews first struggled with laying the wheel’s foundation. The site’s soil was frozen solid three feet deep overlaying another 20 feet of sand that exhibited liquefaction whenever crews attempted to drive piles. To counter the effects of the sand, engineers continually pumped steam into the ground to thaw it, then drove piles 32 feet deep into the bedrock to lay steel beams and poured eight concrete and masonry piers measuring 20 x 20 x 35 feet.

These pylons would support the twin 140-foot towers upon which the wheel’s central 45-ton, 45-foot-long, 33-inch-wide axle would rest. The wheel section measured 250 feet across, 825 feet around, and supported thirty-six enclosed wooden cars that each held up to sixty riders. Ten-inch steam pipes fed a pair of one thousand horsepower engines—a primary and a reserve—that powered the wheel’s movement. Three thousand of Edison’s new-fangled light bulbs lit up the wheel’s supports.

The Ferris Wheel opened on June 21, 1893 on the first day of the Exposition and ran until November 6th of that year. A fifty cent fare entitled the rider to an initial six-stop revolution as the passengers filled the cars and then a nine-minute continuous revolution with views across Lake Michigan and parts of four states. The attraction was a success, earning $726,805 during the Exposition. By 1906, after operating for thirteen years in three locations, the original Ferris Wheel had fallen into disrepair and was slated for demolition. It required three hundred pounds of dynamite to completely level the wheel and shatter its foundations.

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