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George Ferris

AKA George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr.

Born: 14-Feb-1859
Birthplace: Galesburg, IL
Died: 22-Nov-1896
Location of death: Pittsburgh, PA
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Cremated

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Engineer, Inventor

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Ferris Wheel

George Ferris was a construction engineer who worked on railroad tunnels and bridges, eventually establishing his own Ferris & Company, and becoming a recognized expert in such construction. In 1892, Daniel H. Burnham, who was then planning the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893, expressed his desire to build something "original, daring and unique" for the fair, to rival the Eiffel Tower, which had been built for the 1889 World's Fair in Paris. Ferris responded by proposing the "observation wheel", an enormous circular ride, but Burnham's planning committee rejected it for its cost and their uncertainty about its safety. Burnham himself said that the gigantic device would be too rickety to withstand strong winds off Lake Michigan. Ferris, undaunted, took his plans to several Chicago architects and engineers, and returned to the committee with several expert testimonials to the design's safety -- and $400,000 in his own financing for the project.

Construction ran behind schedule, and the Fair was open for a month and a half before the Wheel was finished. Ferris and his wife were the first passengers, along with the city's Mayor and a 40-piece band. The Wheel began selling tickets on June 21, 1893, and crowds that could not afford the 50 fare were awestruck just watching. It was the centerpiece of the fairgrounds -- 264 feet tall, carrying three dozen railway-car-sized gondolas, each of which could seat 40 passengers with standing room for twenty more, for a dizzying twenty-minute ride to altitudes most people had never been. The axle weighed more than 46 tons, and was at the time the largest single piece of steel ever forged. About 1,500,000 passengers rode the wheel, which operated without any safety problems for the duration of the Chicago fair.

But the late completion and unexpected expenses ate into the Wheel's income. After the fair closed Ferris sued for what he felt was his rightful share of the profits from the machine, but lost. Even while the case was in court, smaller versions of his Wheels were built -- without payment to Ferris -- at Coney Island and other amusement parks across America. His wife left him in 1896 and he died a few months later, some say by suicide. He was 37 years old and on the brink of bankruptcy. His remains were cremated and held at the crematorium pending payment of the bill. Some sources say the account was settled and ashes claimed by one of Ferris's brothers, more than a year after his death.

Father: George Ferris Sr. (landscaper, b. 14-May-1818, d. 20-Apr-1895)
Mother: Martha Edgerton Hyde Ferris (b. 24-Oct-1820, m. 3-Sep-1840, d. 23-Mar-1897)
Brother: Fred Ferris
Sister: Maggie Ferris Danburg
Sister: Callie Ferris Barber
Brother: Benjamin Ferris
Sister: Mattie Ferris Schultz
Sister: Mary Ferris Ardway
Wife: Margaret Ann Beatty Ferris (m. 1882, sep. 1896, no children)

    High School: California Military Academy, Oakland, CA (1875)
    University: BA Civil Engineering, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (1881)

    Chi Phi Fraternity

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