Monday, September 01, 2014

Into the Sky and Back Again! Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis

It was only ten months until the next World's Fair. But everyone was still talking about the star attraction of the last World's Fair. At eighty-one stories France's Eiffel Tower was the world's tallest building, so high that visitors could see Paris in one breathtaking sweep.

Now it was America's turn to impress the world at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair.

But none of the plans submitted, all variations of Eiffel's idea, please the Chicago's developers. Tall towers were just so last year!

But there is one American designer who has what seems a preposterous plan--a giant vertical wheel with glass-enclosed compartments for people to ride as the wheel takes them around and up to dizzying heights and drops them down again to earth, over and over, around and around.

Many felt that such a contraption could not work. It would collapse of its own weight, or Chicago's famous winds would bring it down. But as a child George Ferris had dreamed that he could shrink himself to fit on the scoops of mill water wheels and ride around and around on them, and with the development of alloyed steel for skyscrapers, he believed he could engineer such a thrilling ride, such a glorious symbol of the dynamic spirit of Chicago, that his wheel would outshine Mr. Eiffel's tower, which, after all, just stood there. Ferris's invention, like Chicago, moved.

It was an incredibly difficult piece of structural engineering, utilizing the technology of that everyday item, the bicycle wheel, which obtained great strength from its slender spokes. The judges were afraid to approve such a bold venture for fear of an embarrassing failure, but when no other candidate emerged, and with only four months before the scheduled opening of the Fair, Ferris got his go-ahead, minus any funding from the city.

Time was short, and construction had to begin right away. Ferris had to raise money, contract out thousands and thousands of parts manufactured to exact specifications and shipped in time to be assembled on the spot. Every day of construction had to be planned and transportation by rail timed to the minute to meet each succeeding deadline.

But when the time came for site preparation, there was a rude surprise in store for the optimistic engineer.

In January, 1893, George's construction crew began work on the foundation. Shovels broke digging into the frozen ground of one of the most brutally cold winters in Chicago history.

Blast! George ordered his crew to dynamite the icy earth. But what they found underneath was scarier still.

Quicksand! The deadly muck could suck man or machine under in seconds.

George and his brave workers kept frantically digging. Finally, thirty-five feet down, they hit solid ground. Only then could Ferris's crew sink supports into the bedrock and reinforce them with steel crossbars. Tons of cement were pumped in to support his huge construction and to allow a seventy-ton axle to provide the flexibility to hold his device stable under the forces of Windy City winds. Constant pumping and live steam to thaw the bedrock kept the site manageable until the weather finally warmed.

Crews worked around the clock, and problems, once after another, had to be solved. Ferris almost despaired many times, but finally, only two months before the grand opening, the enormous wheel stood, 834 feet in circumference, and 265 feet tall.

Steam engines were put in place under the platform, with backups at the ready, and Ferris turned to his finishing touches. No little swinging seats for this wheel--Ferris had designed large, elegant glass compartments for the passengers, with velvet seats for those who wanted to recline and revolve at the same time.

But when the first brave World Fair-goers climbed on board for the opening ride, no one wanted to sit down.

As the car was lifted higher, everyone rose from the velvet seats and crowded to the windows. Spread out below them was a dizzying sweep of the fairgrounds, the city of Chicago, sparkling Lake Michigan--and even glimpses of three faraway states.

People had twenty glorious minutes in motion before powerful brakes brought the wheel to a whisper-soft stop.

The wheel was safe! News raced across the country.

One and a half million people rode the wheel, lit at night with the latest technology, 3000 electric lights, and it was only fair that George's giant wheel instantly became known as the Ferris Wheel, an attraction that now graces the scene in London and in Singapore, where its Flyer rises to the current record height of 541 feet, and Ferris wheels also appear at the smallest carnival or county fair everywhere. George had done it!

Kathryn Gibbs Davis' forthcoming Mr. Ferris and His Wheel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014) captures the glorious can-do spirit of turn-of-the-century technology. Even today, it is hard to believe that Ferris succeeded under the conditions under which he worked, but everyone who has gloried in the view and gasped at the descent of a Ferris Wheel is glad he did. To the skillful page design of this book, Gilbert Ford's illustrations, up close caricatures and lovely impressionistic landscapes, extend the text perfectly, drawing young readers right into the scene, while author Davis adds inset text boxes and appends a bibliography of books and web sites to inspire further research. Ferris wheels are still a memorable part of the life of almost everyone on the planet, and Davis' account catches the wonder of the first one delightfully.

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