This is the second in a series about the six classical simple machines.
For some reason, I find Ferris wheels terrifying. I say for some reason because I always suspect that I shouldn’t. They aren’t really known for being scary. Are they?
There was once a time when I was completely fearless around roller coasters. Even as late as the mid 1990s, my friend Rachel and I rode in the first seat of Coney Island’s famous Cyclone nine times in a row. And yet.
David Sedaris (in an essay entitled “I Almost Saw This Girl Get Killed”) described walking past a broken ride at a Paris fair that was frozen in mid motion with some of the passengers actually hanging upside down for quite a while. I had always imagined this ride to be a Ferris wheel but I just checked and it wasn’t. It’s just that for some reason I immediately associate dangerous and scary ride incidents with Ferris wheels.
According to the Observation Wheel Directory, the odds of “being seriously injured at one of the United States’ 400 fixed-site amusement parks are 1 in 9 million” (italics mine). Apparently the portable carnival rides are the ones to be worried about.
Which were exactly the kind of Ferris wheels I rode on as a kid. Every year, the abandoned lot next to the local high school, which was just about in walking distance, but which I did not attend as I went to one of those specialized high schools that you have to travel forever to get to, hosted a carnival. Maybe “host” isn’t the right word. But for about a week in the spring, the dusty lot in the middle of nowhere was turned into a real attraction, with fantastic rides and now that I think about it, some of the sleaziest carnies I have ever encountered. It was perfect.
One Ferris wheel, a portable Ferris wheel, at this carnival had specially caged cars in which you could pull a lever and flip yourself upside down while you were going around. My friend Hilary and I were thrilled to try it, but I recall being so terrified that I could not move the lever once I had pulled it and thus kept us spinning upside down for quite possibly an entire day. I was practically crying when we were finally released.
George Washington Ferris (who, as local coincidence would have it, graduated from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) created the original Ferris wheel for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Fair’s organizers had wanted something on the order of the Eiffel Tower, which had been created for the Paris World’s Fair four years earlier.
As the story goes, Daniel H. Burnham, the architect in charge of selecting the project for the Chicago World’s Fair, complained at an engineer’s banquet about having found nothing that “met the expectations of the people.” In attendance at this banquet was George W. Ferris, owner of a firm that tested iron and steel for railroads. Ferris was immediately inspired and scribbled a design (a wheel and axle, if you will) on a napkin during dinner and thus, the “observation wheel” was born. (I once witnessed my friend Beverly’s father, an ad man who came up with Alka Seltzer’s famous “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is!,” suddenly grab a napkin at dinner to scribble down something he’d just come up with and I realized that yes, this is an actual thing that happens.)
Except that Ferris’s design was rejected for being too costly and possibly unsafe, and Ferris ended up financing much of the project himself. It was a dazzling success and during the run of the Chicago Fair (which has so many thrilling stories surrounding it that I suggest you go read about it right this minute) about 1.5 million people rode Ferris’s observation wheel. But unlike the Eiffel Tower, or even Seattle’s Space Needle, the original Ferris wheel is not still with us. In 1906, it was demolished by dynamite and sold for scrap. Luckily, Ferris did not live long enough to see this happen. He had died ten years earlier, penniless and miserable (I’m not making this up).
A couple years ago, at our local county fair, my girls convinced me to go on the Ferris wheel with them. I looked at it and thought, as I do every time, what is so scary about a Ferris wheel? It just goes around and around (this one did not come with caged cars). But the moment that we were lifted straight up into the air, I felt an immediate panic. I must get out of here, I thought. How can I possibly get down?
But then, after a little while of pretending to be just fine, I actually got used to the sensation of being a thousand feet? miles? in the air. There is always that point where you almost reach the ground and feel fine. And you’re wondering what the problem was. And then you get shot right back up into the air again. Oh yeah, that. But eventually when our car got to the bottom, the guy came and lifted the safety bar and I casually stepped out along with my children.
It was over. I had made it. I had survived. Then we ate some fried dough and headed home.
(Now read about the inclined plane!)