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Cities Race To The Top Of The Ferris Wheel


Las Vegas is set to claim the title for the world's largest Ferris Wheel. It completed it's 550 foot tall high roller last week. But New York City plans for an even taller one, 625 feet, and rumor has it Dubai may be planning an even taller Ferris Wheel, but Chicago can always claim the first and definitive Ferris Wheel, so named because it was George Ferris himself who designed it for the 1893 World's Fair.

John Russick is director of curatorial affairs at the Chicago History Museum and joins us from WBEZ there. Thanks very much for being with us.

JOHN RUSSICK: It's my pleasure.

SIMON: So George Ferris drew these plans up on a napkin?

RUSSICK: Yeah, that's part of the legend, of course, that he was challenged by Daniel Burnham in 1891 when Chicago was gearing up for the Columbian Exposition, and Burnham was disappointed with the ideas that the engineers had put forth, and Ferris took up the challenge and at just 33 years old he said: I've got an idea. And he wrote it all down and he claimed that later he hardly wavered from the original plans.

SIMON: Was the whole idea to show up Paris - show up Paris. Only those of us who are Chicagoans can say with a straight face show up Paris. But was that the idea?

RUSSICK: Well, the idea was at least to put the world's Columbian Exposition in Chicago on an equal footing with the 1889 Paris Expo. So the challenge was out there to do something more impressive than the Eiffel Tower.

SIMON: What was the design technique that made the Ferris Wheel possible?

RUSSICK: Oh, well, you know, Ferris claimed that he got the inspiration for the Ferris Wheel from the bicycle wheel, and he modeled the structure after that design. And then of course the element that makes all of that possible is the structural steel, which changed the equation for so many construction projects in the world - bridges, skyscrapers. Everything really changes in the late 19th century because you suddenly have this lightweight, incredibly strong material that can be changed and formed in so many different ways and you can really make anything out of it.

SIMON: John, can we appreciate in this time what it was like for people to see and ride that Ferris Wheel in 1893?

RUSSICK: I think it's really hard for us to do, but I think it's possible. You know, the tallest building in America was the Washington Monument, and the previous record holder was the Pyramids. So people didn't get up off the ground very often, and when you got up off the ground, the view was pretty spectacular. You were not in competition with other buildings or other structures. So it was pretty remarkable experience for people when they got up high. And getting up high was sort of the great adventure of the late 19th century.

SIMON: John Russick of the Chicago History Museum. Thanks so much for being with us.

RUSSICK: My pleasure.


SIMON: This is NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.