The Ferris wheel, invented by George Washington Gale Ferris, Class of 1881, is a terrific example of applied technology wowing the masses. Although “pleasure wheels” existed before the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Ferris’ invention dwarfed its predecessors. Early wheel rides were run by hand and carried three or four passengers in a circular fashion. Ferris’ wheel, 250 feet in diameter, spun more than 2,000 people at a time through the sky, carrying 60 riders in each of its 36 cars. Engineers and exposition planners initially doubted the safety and viability of Ferris’ proposal, but, desperate to out-do the Eiffel Tower, which Paris had presented to the world at the last Exposition, planners finally took a chance and approved Ferris’ project.
Ferris received practical support from fellow bridge builder and Rensselaer graduate William Gronau, Class of 1887, whose calculations made the Ferris wheel work. The success of this particular wheel and its inventor, however, was meteoric; George Ferris died in 1896, and his wheel didn’t last much longer. The ride’s swan song was at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904.
Ferris is the subject of a new biography for kids, Ferris Wheel! George Ferris and His Amazing Invention (Enslow Publishers Inc., 2008). Author Dani Sneed is also an engineer, one who recently returned to designing ethylene plants after 10 years as a full-time mother and writer.
“I was researching scientists and inventors,” she wrote by e-mail when asked why she chose Ferris as a subject, “in hopes of finding a biography needing to be written. When I found George Ferris, with a high-interest topic, no published biography since the publication sold at the 1893 World’s Fair, and such a moving story of conviction against all odds, it was a eureka moment. I knew immediately that I wanted to write this biography.”
Sneed has written picture books about math, and edited and revised merit badge books in chemistry and geology for the Boy Scouts of America. Her biography of Ferris covers a water wheel in Nevada that fascinated Ferris as a boy, but doesn’t mention Troy’s Burden water wheel.
Henry Burden was born in Scotland in 1791, and came to the United States in 1819. His 1852 water wheel enabled Burden Iron Works in South Troy to power his inventions that automated production of, most famously, horseshoes and railroad spikes. Students at Rensselaer studied the principles of the Burden water wheel, and it is likely that Ferris knew the wheel quite well. Burden’s wheel, which was 62 feet in diameter and 22 feet wide, was, like the Ferris wheel, a suspension-type wheel, whose mechanics are similar to that of a bicycle.
Dani Sneed’s book describes these mechanics, and the materials Ferris used. His perseverance in the face of people who doubted plans for his “Monster Wheel,” as he originally called it, is a strong theme of the narrative. While there is no document linking George Ferris and the Burden water wheel, the similarities seem obvious.
“Enslow Publishing did a fabulous job of selecting photographs,” Sneed explained, “and making an attractive layout to draw in the young reader. Unfortunately, the middle-grade reader, whom Enslow targets, needs a low word count. There is so much more to the story of George Ferris than could be captured in the number of pages allowed. My research did not show a ‘smoking gun’ link, but it is quite conceivable that the Burden water wheel was a source of inspiration. If only I could interview George Ferris, this would be one of the questions I would ask.”
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