The History of the Giant Wheels

How much do you know about the evolution of Giant Wheel rides? Here is a brief history of these funtastic Wheels.

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Located on Clifton Hill in Niagara Falls, Ontario is Canada’s largest observation wheel. Standing 175 feet tall (53 metres), with 42 climate-controlled gondolas, the Niagara SkyWheel is one of Niagara’s most popular tourist attractions. With full views of the Niagara landscape, including a first-hand glance at the majestic Niagara Falls, it makes you stop and think how far technology has come.

Early pleasure wheel in Russia, 1807

How much do you know about its evolution? Here is a brief history of the Ferris Wheel.

  • The earliest designs of wheels used for amusement rides may have been based on the large, circular wheels used to lift water for irrigation in about 200 B.C.
  • “Pleasure wheels” originated in 17th century Bulgaria. Passengers rode in chairs suspended from large wooden rings turned by strong men, with a large post on either side.
  • In England, small hand turned wheels were called “ups-and-downs” as early as 1728.
  • One of the first wheels in the United States was built in 1848 by Antonio Maguino. who used it to draw crowds to his rural park and picnic grounds in Walton Spring, Georgia. The wheel was made of wood and powered by two men.
  • The very first Ferris Wheel was constructed by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., a civil engineer from Illinois in the 1890’s. He built it for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. The total cost of the wheel was $300,000.00. The ride cost 50 cents per person at that time, and each ride lasted about 10 minutes. It stood 80.4 metres (264 ft) tall, and had 36 gondolas.
  • American inventor and bridge builder William E. Sullivan came up with the idea of possibility making a smaller wheel that could be taken down and moved from one park or fairground to another in 1900. He designed a 45 foot transportable wheel with twelve three-passenger seats. In 1906 he formed the Eli Bridge Company and started manufacturing his wheel in Roodhouse, Illinois. Most of the ferris wheels found in carnivals and fairs in the United States are made by the Eli Bridge Company.
  • Open to the public in 2014, the current tallest “observation wheel” is the Las Vegas “High Roller”. It stands 550 feet tall (168 metres). It has 28 glass-enclosed and air-conditioned gondolas that can each hold up to 40 people. A full revolution takes 30 minutes.

The Difference Between a “Ferris Wheel” and an “Observation Wheel”

  1. A Ferris Wheel features free-swinging open passenger seats suspended from the end of a spoke. An Observation Wheel features enclosed passenger gondolas designed to remain stable throughout the rotation.

    2. Ferris Wheel’s are supported by two towers (one on each side of the axle). Observation Wheel‘s are supported by an A-frame support.

    3. Ferris Wheel‘s can be obstructed by the wheel itself, and are usually less than 110 feet in height. Observation Wheel‘s offer a 360 degree unobstructed view.

*42 gondolas (carrying 6-8 people each car) make up the Niagara SkyWheel.  

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