Ferris, George Washington Gale Jr.
Born: February 14, 1859, in Galesburg, Illinois
Died: November 21, 1896, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Vocations: Engineer, Inventor
Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Keywords: Daniel H. Burnham; California Military Academy; Ferris, Kaufman and Company; Ferris wheel; G.W.G. Ferris & Company; Kentucky and Indiana Bridge Company; General J.H. Ledlie; Louisville Bridge & Iron Company; Queen City Mining Company; Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Abstract: George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. was born on February 14, 1859, in Galesburg, Illinois. After spending his childhood with his family in Carson City, Nevada, Ferris attended the California Military Academy and the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York. He married Margaret Ann Beatty from Canton, Ohio. Ferris’s career as a civil engineer was rewarding. His success skyrocketed when he created the Ferris wheel, thus solidifying his reputation. Ferris died from typhoid fever on November 21, 1896, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he spent most of his life.
George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. was born on February 14, 1859, in Galesburg, Illinois. Silvanus Ferris, his grandfather, and Reverend George W. Gale founded this village in central Illinois, according to Judith Adams-Volpe in the American National Biography. Ferris was the son of George Washington Gale Ferris Sr. and Martha Edgerton Hyde Ferris; he grew up on a farm with his four sisters and two brothers. In 1864, when Ferris was five-years-old, the family decided to sell the farm and move west to San Jose, California. However, when they arrived in Carson City, Nevada, they were unable to travel farther because money was not worth as much due to inflation caused by the Civil War. California was out of reach at the time, so the Ferris family settled on a ranch near Carson City.
After spending nine years helping his father on the ranch, Ferris attended the California Military Academy in Oakland, California, in 1873. After graduation in 1876, Ferris attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. During his college career, Ferris found time to join clubs and extracurricular activities, such as the glee club, football, and baseball. Ferris did not take his education as seriously as many would think because he had to retake particular courses in order to graduate. Nevertheless, Ferris buckled down and received his degree in civil engineering in February 1881. With a degree under his belt, Ferris was ready to find work as soon as possible.
His first job was with a railroad constructing office in New York City; he worked under General J.H. Ledlie, a famous contractor who taught Ferris the ropes of real life engineering. During the first year working for the company Ferris traveled to West Virginia to locate a reasonable route for the Baltimore, Cincinnati & Western railway to run through the Elk River Valley. The railway had to consist of 78 miles for the project to be completed correctly. Ferris was also assigned to locate a route for a narrow-gauge track in Putnam County, New York. After working for one year under General J.H. Ledlie, Ferris became a professional civil engineer and then a general manager for the Queen City Mining Company in West Virginia in 1882. Ferris designed and built a coal trestle, a tower used to support a bridge, over the Kanawha River. After the bridge project was completed, Ferris was assigned to build three 1,800-foot tunnels as well. Ferris only spent a year working for the Queen City Mining Company because in 1883 the company closed. Fortunately, Ferris did not lose work due to the company’s closing; he became an assistant engineer for the Louisville Bridge & Iron Company in Louisville, Kentucky. During this time, Ferris earned a reputation “for concrete work under heavy pressure in pneumatic caissons” while he worked on the Henderson Bridge located across the Ohio River. He also earned a reputation as “an astute businessman” since he became an expert on large steel structures during the mid-1880s. Ferris then transferred to the Kentucky and Indiana Bridge Company of Louisville in 1885 due to health hazards from working with the previous company. Ferris was in charge of testing and inspecting the steel and iron bought from Pittsburgh steel mills, as stated in the Dictionary of American Biography.
Even though the civil engineering profession consumed most of his time and energy, Ferris found the time to enhance his social life. He fell in love with a woman from Canton, Ohio, and in 1886 he married Margaret Ann Beatty. The happily married couple moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Ferris continued to pursue his dream of becoming a successful engineer as he established the firm of G.W.G. Ferris & Company, Inspecting Engineers along with James C. Hallsted. The company soon spread to other major cities, including New York and Chicago. Ferris began to give his full attention to the promotion and financing of large-scale engineering projects. Ferris founded another firm, Ferris, Kaufman and Company, in 1890, and also kept close ties with his original firm. The new firm focused on constructing major bridges across the Ohio River at Wheeling, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. Ferris earned a name for himself during the early years of his career as an engineer. However, he did not realize the fame and recognition he was about to receive in the next few years of his life.
In 1892, the chief of construction for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Daniel H. Burnham, challenged the prominent civil engineers of the United States to create a structure that would become a rival to the Eiffel Tower, constructed at the recent World’s Fair in Paris. As Michael Valenti stated in Mechanical Engineering, the structure had to be original, daring, and unique. Ferris immediately began thinking of a creation that would prove worthy of such a description. That very evening he sketched a revolving “observation wheel” on a piece of paper and planned to present his idea to the committee the next day. Ferris imagined two large, parallel circles connected with struts that revolved around a steel axis. The wheel would lift passengers in railroad-style cars and move them in a circular rotation. The committee found the idea unrealistic and superficial due to its size and purpose. Ferris was still determined to find a way to design and build this wheel. After convincing several engineers to sponsor his structure and finding investors to pay $400,000 for construction, the committee finally approved Ferris’ idea on November 29, 1892.
His partner, William F. Gronau, was assigned the design detail and construction responsibility, while Ferris took on the responsibility to secure the concession. The United States was going through a period of depression in 1893, so financing the entire project was extremely difficult. Ferris also had to contact several companies in the East and Midwest for the production of parts needed to build the wheel. Many components were manufactured in Cleveland and Youngstown, Ohio, and in Pittsburgh and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. These parts were then loaded onto 150 railroad cars and shipped to Chicago where the excavations were under way. The major task Ferris had to conquer in January 1893 was the pouring of the concrete footings. With temperatures below freezing, the crews dug as quickly as possible. At about 35 feet down the cubic blocks of concrete were poured while steam was used to keep them from freezing. After the foundation was built, the two parallel towers were next on the agenda. They were built out of vertical posts and horizontal braces that were supported with crisscrossed rolled-metal rods. Plate-iron girders were placed on the bottom of the wheel for more strength and support.
Upon completion of the towers, the main component, the wheel, needed to be put into place. The 45-ton axle was fastened to the two towers with spokes, beams, and iron rods for safety and stability. The addition to the monstrous wheel was the thousand-horsepower horizontal coal-fired steam engine needed for rotation. A Westinghouse air brake was also installed in case the wheel needed to stop immediately. The finished product rose to a height of about 264 feet with a circumference of about 825 feet; the 4,000 ton ride carried 36 passenger cars that could hold more than 2,000 people at a time. Ferris’s wheel proved able to withstand the vicious Chicago winds with its strength and stability, according to the American National Biography. Ferris designed and built a structure that would never be forgotten.
On June 16, 1893, the Ferris wheel was open to the public at the Chicago Exposition. According to the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, Mrs. Ferris made a toast to her husband while in one of the passenger cars on the Ferris wheel. She toasted the health of her husband and the success of the Ferris wheel. At first, many visitors were afraid to ride on such an enormous wheel, but the fear soon subsided as more passengers ventured into the nicely designed passenger cars. For 19 weeks the Ferris wheel made over 10,000 revolutions without incident and carried more than 1.5 million passengers who paid 50 cents for a 20-minute ride. During this time, the Ferris wheel brought in over $750,000 in profit for the Chicago Exposition, according to the Inventor of the Week Archive. Once the Chicago Exposition closed, the wheel made its final appearance in St. Louis, Missouri, at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Finally, May 11, 1906, the Ferris wheel was dynamited as the novelty came to an end.
Ferris did not experience the destruction of his marvelous creation because he passed away on November 21, 1896, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, without his wife by his side. She previously returned to her hometown in Canton, Ohio, when their childless marriage came to an end. The American National Biography stated that Ferris died from typhoid fever; however, complications from kidney disease could have played a role in the cause of his death. Suicide also seemed like a rational possibility because Ferris was alone and bankrupt at the time of his death. Some believe his overwhelming sadness was the driving force to take his own life.
According to Judith Adams-Volpe from the American National Biography, Ferris’ partners Gustave Kaufman and D.W. McNaugher gave a praiseworthy eulogy of Ferris; they said, “He was always bright, hopeful and full of anticipation of good results from all the ventures he had on hand. These feelings he could always impart to whomever he addressed in a most wonderful degree, and therein laid the key not of his success. In most darkened and troubled times…he was ever looking for the sunshine soon to come… he died a martyr to his ambition for fame and prominence.”
Ferris earned a reputation as one of the most daring entrepreneurs, optimists, and engineers of the nineteenth century in the United States. The Ferris wheel brightened the horizon for new technologies and inventions that could be possible with imagination and determination. “The feverish pace of his engineering projects and businesses mirrored the accomplishments of U.S. engineers who created a civilization for a new country,” Adams-Volpe stated.
Ferris became a subject of interest to many people, especially Erik Larson who based his book, The Devil in the White City, on the Chicago’s World Fair in 1893. Larson wrote about the true story of the architect who created the World Fair and the serial killer who murdered his victims in the fair. Throughout the suspenseful book the Ferris wheel was one of the major attractions at the World’s Fair. Today most amusement parks and carnivals around the world have smaller versions of Ferris wheels as well as more complex versions, such as the London Eye and the Vienna Prater wheel. Even though these amusement parks have new improved structures, such as roller coasters, the Ferris wheel will always be a legendary part of each and every park. Ferris left behind an unforgotten legacy after he passed away. His success as an engineer and as an inventor is now admired and appreciated as people wait in line to ride the legendary Ferris wheel.
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This biography was prepared by Lindsey Ulizio, Fall 2006.