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What is a Ferris Wheel?

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  • Written By: Tricia Ellis-Christensen
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2014
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A Ferris wheel is a ride typically found at fairs and amusement parks, and is composed of a large wheel standing upright, with passenger cars or seats attached at intervals around the wheel. The earliest Ferris wheel type was a hand-cranked model called Ups and Downs, used in the 16th century. It was no doubt influenced by the Medieval and Renaissance concepts of Fortune’s wheel.

George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., designed the first mechanized Ferris wheel for the World’s Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Unlike most modern Ferris wheels, Ferris’ design was impressively large, and could hold over 200 passengers at a time. It was slow; a single revolution took about 10 minutes.

Ferris’ design soon had rivals. In 1895 in London, a copy of the Ferris wheel designed by Ferris operated for eleven years. In Vienna in 1897, Hubert Cecil Booth created a slightly smaller Ferris wheel. The Paris Exposition of 1900 prompted the building of the Grande Roue, which operated until 1937.

Though designers continued to build impressively large Ferris wheels, emphasis in the Ferris wheel gradually focused on smaller and lighter constructions that could be moved to different town or country fairs. It is quite common to see this Ferris wheel all over the country at local fairs or carnivals. The Ferris wheel of this type can have between 12-16 two-seater cars, and remains one of the most enjoyed carnival rides.

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However, other types of Ferris wheel also became popular. The two-wheel, or sky wheel, is two round wheels, which when not moving, form an oblong, one wheel above the other. The sky wheel provides extra thrills, because the whole structure rotates in an elliptical pattern, and each wheel moves independently. The sky wheel is also twice as tall as the lighter portable Ferris wheel, offering a better vantage point for riders.

A three wheel Ferris wheel also became a popular design in the 1970s. Three wheels on a tripod arm spun independently of each other. Seating was often caged gondolas, allowing a party of 4-6 people to sit together.

Though the gondolas on the Ferris wheel tend to move only slightly as the wheel turns, there are several Ferris wheel with sliding gondolas, which can move toward the center of the wheel as it spins. These are called coaster wheels and two can be found in the US, in Disneyland’s California Adventure Park and on Coney Island. Not all of the gondolas are on tracks, so the person who prefers a stationary gondola can choose to ride on one instead.

Interest in recapturing the early Ferris design, and especially its size, has led to several new Ferris wheels being built in the past few years. Some surpass the 264 foot (about 80 m) height of Ferris’ original wheel. The London Eye, constructed in 1999 stands 442 feet (135 m) high, and was until recently, the largest Ferris wheel on the planet. The Star of Nachang, in China, now surpasses the London Eye, and is 525 feet (about 160 m) tall. The Singapore Flyer, when finished, will be slightly taller than the Star of Nachang.

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