Ferris, George Washington Gale, Jr.
- Judith Adams-Volpe
Ferris, George Washington Gale, Jr. (14 February 1859–22 November 1896), civil engineer and builder of the Ferris Wheel, was born in Galesburg, Illinois, the son of George Washington Gale Ferris and Martha Edgerton Hyde Ferris, farmers. Ferris's grandfather Silvanus Ferris, along with Reverend George W. Gale, founded the village of Galesburg in central Illinois. In 1864 the Ferrises moved to Carson City, Nevada, where they established a ranch. George's father planted the many trees around the state capitol grounds in Carson City, including American elms and spruces. In 1873 George entered the California Military Academy in Oakland, graduating in 1876. That fall he enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. There he studied civil engineering and engaged in extracurricular activities, including the football, baseball, and rifle teams and the Glee Club. Although required to be reexamined in some courses before passing, he received his engineering degree in February 1881, with a senior thesis titled, “Review of Wrought Iron Deck Bridge on the Boston Hoosac Tunnel & Western Railway at Schaghticoke, N.Y.”
Ferris quickly became an accomplished and active engineer engaged in significant railroad and bridge projects. Following graduation, he worked for General J. H. Ledlie, a railroad contractor in New York City. During his first year, he was sent to Charlestown, West Virginia, as a transitman locating a proposed route of the Baltimore, Cincinnati & Western railway through the valley of the Elk River. He also planned the route of a narrow-gauge track in Putnam County, New York. In 1882 he became an engineer and then general manager for the Queen City Coal Mining Company in West Virginia, where he designed and built a coal trestle over the Kanawha River. He also built three 1,800-foot tunnels. In 1883, on the closing of the Queen City Company, he became assistant engineer of the Louisville Bridge & Iron Company in Louisville, Kentucky. He supervised the concrete work of the pneumatic caissons for the Henderson Bridge across the Ohio River. This work was so dangerous and taxing on his health that he was reassigned to supervise construction of the bridge's superstructure. By the mid-1880s he had become a recognized expert on the properties of structural steel use in bridges and large structures and was also establishing a reputation as an astute businessman. In 1885 he joined the Kentucky and Indiana Bridge Company of Louisville and was placed in charge of testing iron and steel from Pittsburgh steel mills.
In 1886 Ferris married Margaret Ann Beatty of Canton, Ohio, and they moved to Pittsburgh. In partnership with James C. Hallsted, he established the firm of G. W. G. Ferris & Company, Inspecting Engineers. Soon they opened branch offices in New York and Chicago. The company conducted mill and factory work inspections and testing throughout the United States. While primarily occupied with the organization and administration of this company, he also turned his attention to the promotion and financing of large-scale engineering projects. In 1890, while retaining his ties to G. W. G. Ferris & Company, he founded a second firm, Ferris, Kaufman and Company, which engineered major bridges across the Ohio River at Wheeling and Cincinnati.
Although engaged in many notable civil engineering projects early in his career, Ferris achieved national celebrity and enduring fame for his conception, design, and building of the Great Ferris Wheel that became the signature attraction of the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. Daniel H. Burnham, director of works of the exposition, in early 1892 challenged U.S. civil engineers to design a “novel” and “daring” structure that would surpass the Eiffel Tower, engage the public spirit, and symbolize the exposition's emphasis on new technology. Ferris was immediately inspired and reportedly sketched the idea and plan for the Great Wheel in a Chicago restaurant. He assigned design detail and construction responsibility to his partner, William F. Gronau, also a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Ferris himself used his genius as a businessman to secure the concession in late 1892 after a lengthy negotiation with the board of directors of the exposition, to raise the financing during a period of general national depression in 1893, and to organize the manufacture of parts by numerous companies in the East and Midwest. Despite a brutally cold winter, quicksand, and a spring of ceaseless rain, the Wheel was finished on 21 June 1893. Rising 264 feet above the Midway and 825 feet in circumference, it weighed more than 2.6 million pounds, had thirty-six cars, each with a capacity to hold sixty passengers, was powered by two 1,000-horsepower steam engines, and was illuminated by more than 3,000 electric lights. The Wheel proved completely safe, as documented in Scientific American in 1893, withstanding gale-force winds and storms, absorbing lightning, and running flawlessly through the duration of the exposition. Ferris's magnificent wheel dominated the exposition by its size and popularity, carrying 1.4 million riders. It is the first example of technology being harnessed purely as a pleasure machine, and it captured the imagination of a nation.
Ferris soon faced patent infringement suits from creators of smaller pleasure wheels, from which he eventually emerged victorious but at great personal and financial cost. Ferris rejected offers from Coney Island, London, and elsewhere to purchase the Wheel and instead relocated and reassembled it in a small park in Chicago. This venture was a miserable failure. Ferris's Wheel would delight fairgoers once more at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. It came to a most ignominious end when the Great Wheel succumbed to a wrecking dynamite charge on 11 May 1906.
Despite such evident early promise, the disastrous financial aftermath of the Wheel appears to have broken Ferris. His health may have been somewhat precarious since his early bridge-building projects, and his childless marriage apparently failed when his wife returned to her Canton, Ohio, hometown prior to 1896. In an attempt to meet his financial obligations, Ferris sold most of his interest in G. W. G. Ferris & Company to his partners. He died in Pittsburgh. Typhoid fever was identified on his death certificate as the cause of death, though kidney disease may also have contributed to his decline.
Ferris exemplified the daring entrepreneurship, optimism, and building acumen of the nineteenth-century engineer in the United States. In their published eulogy of Ferris, partners Gustave Kaufman and D. W. McNaugher praised his spirit: “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 lay the key note 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” (quoted in Anderson, p. 75). Ferris contributed significantly to forging the future of steel in large-scale building construction. His leadership was not only technical in nature, through the development of testing and the application of steel in project design, but also cultural, erecting a steel structure in the American imagination. The Ferris Wheel's merger of technology and entertainment led the way for social acceptance of powerful new technologies and for the dominance of technology-driven amusement in the century to follow. The feverish pace of his engineering projects and businesses mirrored the accomplishments of U.S. engineers who created a civilization for a new century. Writing in November 1893 about the amazing technology and skill evident in the Ferris Wheel, civil engineer Wm. H. Searles found the young Ferris to represent “a good promise for America in the twentieth century” (p. 623).
Ferris family archival papers are at the College Archives, Seymour Library, Knox College, Galesburg, Ill. Ferris family genealogical research papers, including significant records on the Ferris Wheel and patent litigation, have been assembled by Lora C. Little and are held at the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society Library in New York City. The most important patent infringement case is The Garden City Observation Wheel Company vs. the Ferris Wheel Company; more than 400 pages of court documents are available at the Chicago Branch of the National Archives. A detailed account of Ferris's life and work is in Norman Anderson, Ferris Wheels: An Illustrated History (1993). Anderson includes coverage of the building of the Ferris Wheel, the patent cases, and references to primary sources such as legal decisions, company records, and family papers. Articles on the Ferris Wheel at the World's Columbian Exposition include Jack Fincher, “George Ferris Jr. and the Great Wheel of Fortune,” Smithsonian 14 (July 1983): 109–18; Sisley Barnes, “George Ferris' Wheel: The Great Attraction of the Midway Plaisance,” Chicago History 6, no. 3 (1977): 177–82; Jack Klasey, “Who Invented the Ferris Wheel?” American History Illustrated 28 (Sept.–Oct. 1993): 60–63; Carl Snyder, “Engineer Ferris and His Wheel,” Review of Reviews (U.S. ed.), 8 Sept. 1893, pp. 269–70. For technical information on the 1893 Ferris Wheel see “The Great Wheel at Chicago,” Scientific American 69 (July 1893): 8–9; Wm. H. Searles, “The Ferris Wheel,” Association of Engineering Societies Journal 12 (Dec. 1893): 614–23; and F. G. Coggin, “The Ferris and Other Big Wheels,” Cassier's Magazine 6 (July 1894): 215–22. See also Joseph Dimuro, “The 1893 Ferris Wheel and the Cultural Politics of National Identity” (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 2000). Obituaries are in the Pittsburgh Post, 23 Nov. 1896; Engineering Record 34 (1896): 479; and Iron Age 58 (1896): 1019. Ferris's final resting place is unknown; see “Ashes of George W. G. Ferris,” New York Times, 8 Mar. 1898, p. 5.