Profile is a series of brief biographies on noted Pennsylvanians.

Around the world, Ferris wheels often symbolize the carefree days of summer. Yet, the engineer who “re-invented the wheel” is less remembered.

George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. was born in Galesburg, Illinois, on February 14, 1859, one of ten children of George W. G. and Martha Edgerton (Hyde) Ferris. In 1864, the senior Ferris sold the family’s 1,200-acre dairy farm for the lure of ranching near Carson City, Nevada. The family discovered their greenback dollars from the sale of the farm lost more than $10,000 in value due to Civil War inflation and Carson City’s preference for gold as currency. Ferris left his mark on Carson City when he was contracted in 1871 to landscape the young state capital. The family uprooted again in 1880 to become early settlers of Riverside, California. Ferris Jr. attended California Military Academy in Oakland, California, and in 1881, he earned an engineering degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, New York. In 1998, RPI inducted Ferris into its Alumni Hall of Fame.

George W. G. Ferris Jr. launched his career by designing railroad bridges, trestles, and tunnels. His work took him to Pittsburgh to inspect steel purchased for the Kentucky and Indiana Bridge Company. Pittsburgh, with its booming steel mills, was an obvious choice to es­tablish, along with several fellow RPI graduates, the firm of G. W. G. Ferris & Company to finance large-scale engineering projects. He settled in 1887 with his wife, Margaret Ann Beatty, of Can­ton, Ohio, in Allegheny City, later annexed by Pittsburgh. Three years later he established Ferris, Kaufman and Company, to engineer major bridges.

Ferris’s rise to fame began in 1891 with a trip to Chicago, which had been selected to host the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1892-1893 commemorating the 400-year anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus. Daniel H. Burnham, the exposition’s director of works, spoke before an engineers’ banquet and challenged them to design a superstructure to rival the star attraction of the Exposition Universelle de 1889 in Paris, the Eiffel Tower. Alexandre-Gus­tave Eiffel (1832-1923) offered to design a similar structure – even taller than his tower in Paris – but engineers throughout the country demanded that any structure should be “the result of American genius.”

While dining with colleagues in Chicago, Ferris sketched his ideas on napkins. “I remember remarking that I would build a wheel, a monster,” he recalled. Ferris would transform his childhood memory of a water wheel on Nevada’s Carson River into a “gargantuan Ezekiel’s Wheel.” Skeptical engineers told Ferris that a huge wheel was foolish, sure to collapse under its own weight. Undeterred, he spent $25,000 of his own money preparing detailed designs. “Ferris is a crackpot. He has wheels in his head,” a director of the Chicago World’s Fair remarked after Fer­ris presented his plans. The directors, who changed their minds several times before granting approval, stipulated that Ferris build the wheel with his own money. The government of France financed Eiffel’s towering iron structure, but no public funding was available to erect Ferris’s giant wheel.

Ferris formed a joint stock company, but stock sales were slow. Workers had more than two years to complete the Eif­fel Tower, but by the time the fair’s directors ceased their vacillation and two wealthy investors, railroad magnate An­drew Onderdonk and Judge William Vincent, purchased enough shares, Ferris had just twenty-two weeks before the fair’s opening on May 1, 1893. Construction continued through days when the outdoor temperature plunged to ten degrees below zero, requiring dynamite to work the frozen earth.

Bethlehem Iron Company in Bethle­hem, Northampton County, forged the largest single piece of metal in the world to that time to complete the 89,320-pound axle of the wheel, 45 1/2 feet long and thirty-three inches in diameter. It only took two hours to hoist the massive axle to the 140-foot high towers, resting each end on two sixteen-foot diameter, thirteen-ton cast-iron spiders anchored in concrete thirty-five feet deep. More than 100,000 parts were hurriedly manufactured by companies throughout the country.

Located 700 yards away from the wheel, a power plant fed twin 1,000- horsepower reversible engines, one which drove the wheel, the other an emergency backup, with a Westinghouse air brake to hold the wheel motionless when necessary. Resembling a giant bicycle wheel, a 20,000-pound sprocket chain turned the wheel. The finished wheel was 264 feet in height – about twenty-six stories – and, according to one newspaper, “varied from a true circle less than the most delicate pivot­wheel of a watch.” After successfully testing the wheel on June 9, thirty-six passenger cars were hung, each the size of a railroad passenger car and enclosed with glass, wood, and steel. Each car had a conductor to look after the comfort of the passengers. The finished Ferris Wheel weighed about 1,200 tons when filled with 2,160 passengers.

On June 21, 1892, from the comfort of swivel chairs, dignitaries, a forty-piece band playing “America,” and excited riders rose to breath-taking heights above the midway for a spectacular view of the architectural splendor of the World’s Fair and Chicago’s skyline. The wheel proved to be an immediate success, although a writer for The Manufacturer and the Builder opined, “It lacks, to our way of thinking, character and dignity of purpose, and must awaken in the mind of the serious and thoughtful the disappointing reflection that a vast amount of mechanical skill and a great lot of money have been expended upon the production of a gigantic toy.” Rejecting that notion, the public affirmed their approval toward applying the best of man’s engineering skill to leisure activities.

For fifty cents, riders enjoyed twenty minutes suspended above the ground, stopping six times during two complete revolutions. Three thousand tights illuminated the wheel at night and couples sought to be married atop the wheel. Engineers certified that winds of one hundred miles per hour could not topple it. Although one construction worker was killed, the wheel turned flawlessly and safely until November 1, 1893, the final day of the fair. The wheel had cost about $400,000 to build and earned more than $725,000. Despite 1.4 million paid admissions, the wheel proved to be a bitter disappointment to Ferris.

Forced to fend off patent lawsuits while suing the exposition over the wheel’s profits, Ferris declared bankruptcy. He lost his companies, his wife, and his health. It took $15,000 and eighty-six days to dismantle the wheel in 1895 and then reassemble it for Chicago’s North Clark Street Fair, adjacent to Lincoln Park. Directors had hoped to develop the new site with a restaurant, Vaudeville theater, band shell, and a new coat of paint for the wheel. Ferris never witnessed the outcome. Several weeks after the development bonds went on sale, Ferris died of typhoid fever in Pittsburgh at the age of thirty?seven on November 22, 1896.

In planning the Exposition Uni­verselle de 1900, French engineers recreated a nearly exact replica of the original Ferris Wheel. Chicago’s Lincoln Park residents campaigned to have their wheel removed, condemning it as useless and “undesirable industrialism.” With $400,000 in new debt, the wheel was sold for $1,800 at a receiver’s sale and the dismantled parts were shipped to St. Louis to reemerge as the Observation Wheel for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904. Another three million riders enjoyed Ferris’s invention.

The Chicago Tribune noted the wheel’s “ignominious end” on the morning of May 11, 1906. After familiar complaints that the wheel was a neighborhood eye­sore well after the close of the exposition, 200 pounds of dynamite leveled the wheel into a giant pile of scrap metal; an additional 100 pounds of explosives shattered the concrete foundation. Little, if anything, is proven to survive from the original wheel and Ferris’s original designs were lost. Ferris, who died penniless, childless, and alone, was cremated. His ashes remained unclaimed in Pittsburgh for fifteen months until a surviving brother, unnamed in sources, retrieved them.