The Ferris Wheel

The Original Ferris Wheel

On my dresser is a photograph. It is the only photograph in my bedroom, and it is one of my most treasured possessions. The photo is an original, taken in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, of the Ferris Wheel. In case you’re not completely obsessed with this fair, as I have been in the past, you’ll want to know that the ferris wheel as we know it was built for the very first time for this event. Constructed by an engineer named George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., this first version was a monstrous affair at 264 feet tall, with 36 cars each fitted to hold 60 people.

Ferris had faith in his design, and the fair desperately wanted to include modern marvels that would outshine previous World’s Fairs and put Chicago at the top of the map. However, as you might imagine, people were scared. It was new technology, and potentially dangerous technology, at that. There were rumors that the wheel might slip its housing and roll away, crushing its passengers and fair goers below. However, the dreamer and his invention prevailed and now geeks like me get to travel the world in search of new ferris wheels to ride. I’ve only been on a handful so far, but look forward to going to as many as possible in my life. I love them, especially this first wonder.

Along the Plaisance
"Along the Plaisance", a cabinet card image of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, IL.

For me, though, the story is not about Ferris, but about his wife, who stuck with him through his seeming folly. It was she who fearlessly volunteered to be one of the first to ride the wheel before it’s grand opening, trusting her husband’s brilliance and putting faith in their love instead of others’ doubts. The story is that George, Margaret Ann and a local journalist went up in the wheel to give the journalist a good story. It was a very windy day, and the journalist was absolutely terrified throughout the 9 minute trip. Margaret Ann remained entirely composed beside her husband (I like to imagine that her eyes shone with mischief at the journalist’s discomfort).

In the end, their story was a sad one. George spent the rest of his life in litigation after the fair refused to pay him his share of the profits, then other people began using his design without permission at fairs across the country. Margaret Ann eventually left him, and he died of typhoid, lonely, bankrupt and defeated. But time is flat, and moments continue happening. Somewhere out there, Margaret Ann and George are riding the Ferris Wheel for the first time, frightened, triumphant, trusting in each other and providence, in love. That moment, for me, is what life should be about.

Holding Hands

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