The Ferris Wheel, the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, and the Display of American Superiority

By Violette H.P. Ho
2016, Vol. 8 No. 04 | pg. 2/2 |

The Ferris Wheel versus the Eiffel Tower

A few years before the Americans organized their greatest exhibition ever, Paris hosted the Exposition Universelle, or World’s Exposition, from May to October 1889, to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the French Revolution. The fair covered an area of about 1 km2 and attracted 6.3 million visitors. The most significant feature of the exhibition was undoubtedly the Eiffel Tower, named after its creator, Gustave Eiffel. Made of wrought iron, which can last forever, the tower stands 324 meters (1,063feet) tall, the height of an 81-storey building, and weighs over 10,000 tons. Designed as an entrance arch to the Exposition Universelle and although many Parisian thought it would ruin the city, the tower has become an iconic feature of French culture and a symbol of French’s achievement in terms of technology and engineering.28

The need to construct a marvel of engineering held great significance, as the as the Directors of the fair had planned an exhibition that would showcase American advancements in technology and the American way of life. Upon completion in 1889, the Tower overtook American’s Washington Monument’s title for being the tallest building in the world. Because the Exposition Universelle had been so huge and magnificent, visitors believed that no other exhibition could ever match it.

The construction of the Eiffel Tower offered vivid evidence that the French were the leaders in iron and steel construction, despite the fact that the Americans had built the longest steel bridge in the world. The failure to build a structure that could match the French’s tower meant that American engineers were behind the French in construction technology. This hurt the pride of the organizers, as Chicagoans had already promised the site selection committee that they would make it happen.29 Failing to build a structure that could even match the French’s tower meant American engineers were behind the French in construction technology. The need for the construction of an engineering marvel, therefore, had become an urgent need.

American pride was embedded into all of the meetings related to the fair. At one Saturday Afternoon Club meeting, architects and engineers of the fair gathered to hear Burnham. He praised the American architects for their contribution to the fair, which he was sure would impress the world, but he reprimanded the American engineers for failing to come up with a design of a structure they had long been waiting for. He stated, “Something novel, original, daring and unique must be designed and built if American engineers are to retain their prestige and standing.”30

The patriotic sentiment was so high that when Gustave Eiffel himself submitted a plan for a new version of the French tower, a few hundred feet taller and bigger, American engineers were outraged that the directors might even consider it. Even though these engineers could not come up with something better than what Eiffel submitted, they could not accept a centerpiece to their Columbian Exposition designed and built by a French engineer, not to mention the fact that he was the creator of the very structure they wanted to surpass.31

Burnham officially challenged all American engineers to design and build a structure so special that it could even outperform the Eiffel Tower. Several plans were submitted to the Board of Directors, including a big wheel designed in the form of a Dutch windmill. None of them was accepted. The Board had almost lost hope when a 33-year-old civil engineer from Pennsylvania, George Ferris Jr., arrived in Chicago and learned about the challenge. Ferris sketched out and submitted a plan for a huge “observation wheel” in full detail, including the ticket price. Seeing the size of the proposed structure, the committee dismissed his plan as unrealistic. A few weeks later, Ferris came back with endorsement from other engineers, who maintained that his design was both feasible and safe to build. He had also found investors who were willing to cover the $400,000 construction cost to build the structure. The Board of Directors finally approved his plan.32

Ferris kept in mind the idea of outdoing the Eiffel Tower when designing his wheel. At first, the engineer sketched out a revolving structure of approximately 300 feet in diameter, which would have been the equivalent of the Eiffel Tower’s height if the wheel’s circumference were stretched out. After careful consideration, however, Ferris found that a 250-foot wheel would do just as well and decided to scale down his design. In the end, Ferris settled for a structure that was 264 feet high, with two supporting towers, each standing 140 feet tall.33

The structure of the Ferris Wheel, sometimes referred to as Chicago Wheel, is both unique and original. Ferris’ innovative design allowed it to withstand the infamous Chicago wind. The construction of the wheel in Chicago’s winter was a real challenge. As the ground was frozen, engineers had to used steam to thaw the soil, then drove piles 32 feet into the bedrock and pour reinforced concrete over steel beams to form eight piers, each measured 20 x 20 x 35 feet. These piers would support the two 140-foot towers, which in turn carried the 89,320-pound, 45-foot-long, 33-inch-wide axle. It was the largest piece of steel ever forged in the United States.

Seven hundred feet away from the base, other engineers began the construction of the wheel’s power plant. Ten-inch steam pipes were use to run a pair of 1,000 HP engines, one was used to run the wheel and the other one was used as a reserve. For safety reason, Ferris used an oversized Westinghouse air-break to stop the wheel when it was necessary. The foundation of the wheel was lit up by 3,000 new-fangled light bulbs. One reviewer admittedly summarized his impression of wheel, "You cannot advertise the wheel, anyway, any more than you can advertise the fair, or the Atlantic Ocean. They are all too big."34

The Ferris Wheel quickly became the top attraction at the Columbian Exposition. The magnificent wheel featured 36 huge and elegant cars, each of which could fit 60 people, for a total of 2,160 passengers. Visitors paid 50 cents each to ride the wheel – a dear price for most working-class Americans. The ticket for a 20-minute ride was equal to the exposition’s general admission fee. Yet on an average day, ten thousand people rode the wheel. During the 19 weeks of operation, the wheel carried total 1.5 million passengers and generated $750,000 for the Ferris Wheel Company. No single accident happened during the entire operation. 35

The Ferris Wheel had become the symbol of American’s national pride at the fair. According to John Kouwenhoven, an author of American architecture and art, France’s iconic technology had to rely on an American’s invention to operate: the Eiffel tower could not operate without an elevator. The Eiffel Tower was sixty times more expensive yet it was only four times higher than the Ferris Wheel. Height was the only source of marvel for the Tower whereas the wheel embodied the “significant characteristics of nineteenth century technology and democracy: those characteristics of mobility and change [...].”36 The moving feature of the Ferris Wheel signified the future of the United States: the continuous development and the advancement of American technology.

Another feature that contributed to the Ferris Wheel’s superiority was the financial investment it represented. The Eiffel Tower received about twenty percent of the construction cost from the French government. Ferris, however, did not receive any financial assistance from the United States government. Planning for the most outstanding exposition ever, the Board of Directors had spent all the money they had, leaving nothing for the construction of a centerpiece for the fair. Ferris had no problem to raise money from private investors.37 Whether it was a technical, a symbolic, or a financial question, Americans seemed to have good reasons to feel proud of their wheel.


In the second half of the twentieth century, Britain and France remained the most industrially advanced countries. Europeans continued to look down and regarded Americans as inferior. As the majority of Americans were still farmers, Europeans only recognized the American’s great strength in land ownership, not in aristocracy. New cities, such as Chicago, were considered an outpost of urbanization.38 While the United States’ economic and military power continued to grow, Americans demanded respect and to be recognized as a major player in scientific research and technological advancement.

Americans wanted to show the world what America was and what it could become: A leader in science, technology, education, wealth, etc. As knowledge was equated with state power, American seemed to prepare herself for an expansion. The exposition was also a way to the reaffirm that the American way is “the way” to go. Using technology to show that the United States could outdo both Britain and France, two of the most significant Western powers. Americans began to achieve what they wanted. European physicists, who used to look down on Thomas Edison’s invention, began to talk to him at the fair.39

At the World’s Columbian Exposition, science and technology were used to demonstrate the superiority of American technological and scientific achievements, to show what Americans had accomplished, and the endless capabilities Americans possessed. The fair was also used to validate Americans’ way of life, and to illustrate the power of mechanization and automation. While national pride surfaced in the competition with the Crystal Palace and the Eiffel Tower, the underlying reasons that motivated Americans to do so might go beyond these contexts.

The Civil War ended in 1865 with the abolition of slavery. In 1886, the Native Americans’ war against U.S. military officially ended. As Natives were forced to assimilate to white culture or to move to reservations, it was felt that Americans’ mission to conquer the West and to expand their frontier had been accomplished. Industrialization manufacturing The United States began to look for ways to expand its sphere of influence. By the end of the twentieth century, European powers had carved up the world as they claimed their colonies. Britain and France were among the most notable colonizers. The Americans seemed to be paving the way for their future expansion, aiming to increase their influence in other parts of the world (such as Latin America), which had already been colonized by the Europeans.


Adas, Michael. Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance. New York: Cornell University Press, 1999.

Anderson, Norman D., and Walter R. Brown. Ferris Wheels. New York: Patheon Books, 1983.

Auerbach, Jeffrey A. The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.

Burnham, Daniel H., Ives, Halsey C., Handy, Moses P., Ballu, Roger, Del Nero, Angelo, Vos, Hubert, Ward, Humphrey, and Hitchcock,Ripley. The Story of the Exposition, Illustrated in Its History, Architecture, and Art. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1895.

Burnham, Daniel Hudson and Ripley Hitchcock. The Art of the World: Illustrated in the Paintings, Statuary and Architecture of the World’s Columbian Exposition. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1893.

Curti, Merle. “America at the World Fairs, 1851-1893.” The American Historical Review 55, no. 4 (1950): 833-856.

"Eiffel Tower." Purdue University–School of Materials Engineering. November 30, 2013.

Klasey, Jack. “Who Invented the Ferris Wheel,”American History Illustrated28:4 (September-October, 1993): 60-63.

Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. New York, Crown Publisher, 2003.

Maranzani, Barbara. "7 Things You May Not Know About the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair." History. May 1, 2013.

Margaret Jacob, HNRS-182 Lecture, UCLA, November 18, 2013.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "GEORGE FERRIS (1859-1896): The Ferris Wheel." Inventor of the Week Archive. Lemelson–MIT. May 1999.

Muccigrosso, Robert. Celebrating the New World, Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893, (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1993), 176-78. Hereafter cited as “Celebrating the New World.”

Truman, Ben C. History of the World's Fair, Being a Complete and Authentic Description of the Columbian Exposition. New York: E. B. Treat, 1893.

Weingardt, Richard. Circles in the Sky: The Life and Times of George Ferris. Reston, VA: American Society of Civil Engineers, 2009.


1.) Robert Muccigrosso, Celebrating the New World, Chicago's Columbian Exposition of 1893, (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Inc., 1993), 176-78.

2.) Jennifer D. Keene, Saul Cornell, and Edward T. O’Donnell, “Becoming a Modern Society: America in the Gilded Age, 1877-1900,” in Visions of America: A History of the United States (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2010), 501.

3.) Ibid, 502-503.

4.) Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Becoming a Modern Society, 517-527.

5.) Ibid.

6.) Ibid.

7.) Ben C. Truman, History of the World’s Fair, Being a Complete and Authentic Description of the Columbian Exposition (New York: E. B. Treat, 1893), chap. 4.

8.) Daniel H. Burnham et al.,The Story of the Exposition, Illustrated in Its History, Architecture, and Art (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1895), I, XVII, XIX, XLII.

9.) Keene, Cornell, and O’Donnell, Becoming a Modern Society, 510-511.

10.) Jeffrey A. Auerbach, The Great Exhibition of 1851: A Nation on Display (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), 1.

11.) Margaret Jacob, HNRS-182 Lecture on November 18, 2013, UCLA.

12.) Burnham et al.,The Story of the Exposition, I.

13.) Burnham et al.,The Story of the Exposition, II-V.

14.) Ibid.

15.) Merle Curti, “America at the World Fairs, 1851-1893,” The American Historical Review 55, no. 4 (1950): 833-856.

16.) Burnham et al.,The Story of the Exposition, XIX-XXII.

17.) Ibid.

18.) Burnham et al.,The Story of the Exposition, VIII-XLII.

19.) Ibid.

20.) Ibid.

21.) Burnham et al.,The Story of the Exposition, XVII.

22.) Merle Curti, America at the World Fairs, 833-856.

23.) Ibid.

24.) Burnham et al.,The Story of the Exposition, XVIII -XIX.

25.) Ibid.

26.) Burnham et al.,The Story of the Exposition, I-XLII.

27.) Michael Adas, Machines as the Measure of Men: Science, Technology, and Ideologies of Western Dominance (New York: Cornell University Press, 1989), 3.

28.) Purdue University - School of Materials Engineering, "Eiffel Tower." Accessed November 30, 2013.

29.) Weingardt, Circle in the Sky, 42.

30.) Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America (New York, Crown Publisher, 2003).

31.) Weingardt, Circles in the Sky, 43.

32.) Norman D. Anderson and Walter R. Brown, Ferris Wheels (New York: Patheon Books, 1983), 42-43.

33.) Ibid.

34.) Massachusetts Institute of Technology, "George Ferris (1859-1896): The Ferris Wheel," Inventor of the Week Archive, Lemelson–MIT, May 1999,

35.) Jack Klasey, “Who Invented the Ferris Wheel,”American History Illustrated28:4 (September-October, 1993): 60-63.

36.) Muccigrosso, Celebrating the New World, 177.

37.) Fincher, “George Ferris Jr. and the Great Wheel of Fortune,” Smithsonian 14:4 (1983): 108-118.

38.) Margaret Jacob, HNRS-182 Lecture.

39.) Muccigrosso, Celebrating the New World, 176-78.

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