Thursday, July 11, 2013

If Isaac Could Only Imagine

Isaac's arm stabilizer

The margins of Isaac's journal contain many sketches of his ideas for improving or inventing machines.  As a young druggist he designed and built an apparatus to stabilize a man's sore elbow enough to allow it to heal.  As a farmer in Kansas he designed and built a 3-horse cultivator, the first of its kind, for which he sought a patent.  He rarely bought a piece of equipment without modifying it in some way to improve its performance.  With his inventive mind, how he would have loved to attend the exhibition we know as The Chicago World's Fair!
The proper name was the World's Fair:  Columbian Exposition, organized to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the New World.  When it opened to the public on May 1, 1893, it covered 600 acres, with about 200 buildings and pavilions containing exhibits from around the world.  Isaac would have loved all of it, but the single thing that might have impressed him the most was the amazing invention of George Ferris.
George Ferris
Born on Valentine's Day 1859 in Galesburg, IL, Ferris attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY, and earned a degree in civil engineering.  By the late 1880s he had opened G.W.G. Ferris & Co. in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with their principle business being building tunnels and rail lines.
Although Ferris made a good living from what he was doing, he was ambitious, and the construction of the Eiffel Tower for the Paris Exhibition of 1889 inspired him to consider what he might build that would exceed the famous Paris landmark.  He imagined an observation wheel, and when plans were announced for the Chicago World's Fair, he believed he had found the perfect venue for his invention.
Unfortunately, when he presented his idea to the committee in charge of accepting or rejecting entries to the Fair, some regarded it as impossible to build, some saw it as too dangerous for riders, and some even called him a "crackpot."  Ferris enlisted endorsements from other engineers, and the committee changed its mind and accepted the concept of George Ferris for a giant observation wheel.  Their delayed approval resulted in the Ferris Wheel being incomplete when the fair opened, but when it was finished and open to customers, people lined up in great numbers to ride the new invention.  In fact, ticket sales for the Ferris Wheel are credited with keeping the fair from indebtedness.
The Ferris Wheel at the Chicago Fair
Imagine a bicycle wheel with the axle of the wheel set on two steel pyramids, with the wheel spokes consisting of heavy steel beams.  Now, consider the engineering genius of the construction.  The axle was the largest piece of steel that had ever been forged in the United States, weighing 46 1/2 tons!  The wheel itself was 264 feet high, and the towers supporting the wheel were 140 feet high.  There were 36 passenger cars outfitted to impress Victorian tastes and capable of carrying 40 seated passengers or 60 standing.  Two 1,000 horsepower steam engines turned the wheel, and a huge air brake stopped it.  George Ferris had indeed created a marvel to equal or exceed the Eiffel Tower!
Sadly, the Chicago World's Fair was only a temporary site, and the location to which the Wheel was moved was not successful.  In addition, when others attempted to use Ferris's ideas, he became involved in many patent infringement lawsuits.  He gained his fame but died in 1896 at the young age of thirty-seven.
The above image of the Ferris Wheel was taken from a wonderful book of photographs of the Chicago World's Fair published in 1893 that is now part of the archives of the Stafford County Historical Museum.  In the background of the photograph may be seen some of the buildings said to have inspired L. Frank Baum in his depiction of the Emerald City.  If you happen to be in Stafford, KS, on a weekday, stop by and ask Director Michael Hathaway to see the wonderful book of photographs from the Chicago World's Fair.  
Today there are taller Ferris Wheels in the world.  The London Eye towers 400 feet above the River Thames, dominating a fairly flat city and altering the lovely, traditional skyline.  The tallest Ferris Wheel, however, is the Singapore Flyer, that pierces the sky at 541 feet!

1 comment:

Alice said...

Here's another connection, Lyn,
My Daddy's mother's maiden name was Ferris. Her daddy Joseph LeRoy Ferris was in the Civil War and then came to Kansas about 1880 and to Staffor in 1885. We have not yet found a direct connection to George's family but are hoping we do!

I first rode the huge, new Observation Wheel in Seattle with a McMillan cousin from Stafford last year! Thanks for the walk down memory lane!