Sunday, March 3, 2013

The Chicago Wheel

Becket, March 3, 2013

The Industrial Revolution brought with it all sorts of new programs.  Among them a rather peculiar one: the world's fair.  Beginning with the 1844 French Industrial Exposition in Paris, the phenomenon caught fire: Bern and Madrid in 1845, Brussels in 1847, Saint Petersburg in 1848, Lisbon in 1849.  And of course, the 1851 Great Exhibition in London, with Joseph Paxton's Crystal Palace.  But the fair that raised the bar, literally, was the 1889 Exposition Universelle, again in Paris, with its celebrated Eiffel Tower.

When the directors of the 1893 Chicago World's Fair began to work on the plans for the Columbian Exposition, the challenge of the Eiffel Tower was fresh in their minds.  Although they had agreed on the Beaux-Arts for the architecture of the exhibition, the design of an heroic landmark required a completely different approach.  For that, they selected an obscure bridge builder from Galesburg, Illinois, that proposed a gigantic rotating wheel with pivoting passenger cars.  His name: George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.

Yes, the centerpiece of the Columbian Exhibition was the original Ferris Wheel.  I don't know if Ferris could rival Eiffel as an engineer, but the rotating wheel created all sorts of original design problems resulting in a unique iconic structure, with a series of double rings connected to its central axle by a web of slender spokes.  Add to that the supports for the axle, the cars with their pin connections and, of course, the slow rotational movement itself, and you had a new, unprecedented monument.

Then it was the experience itself, of 2,000 visitors going around, slowly turning all the way up, more than 250 feet up in the sky, to the views of the fairgrounds and the city below.

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