Matt Dunham/AP
Youngsters play in a park adjacent to the London Eye wheel in London.

Ferris Wheels Join Race for the Sky

December 25, 2008 08:28 AM
by Christopher Coats
Threatening to displace the skyscraper as the ultimate symbol of civic and skyline authority, the Ferris wheel has returned, with efforts across the globe underway to create the highest and most impressive wheels around.

The Wheels in the Sky

Adding an element of seriousness, developers have dropped the original title, eliciting images of theme parks and carnivals, and have begun to call these massive revolving circles, “observational wheels.”

Following the basic structural approach as they did when George Washington Gale Ferris first unveiled his creation at Chicago’s World’s Fair in 1893, these new wheels differ structurally only in their sheer size and the addition of tensioned cables as spokes, instead of traditional bars held in place.

Further, the new wheels host sealed capsules, allowing larger groups of passengers and more impressive heights.

Inside, however, the wheels are worlds away from the original carnival rides, offering a slow-moving luxury ride, complete with bars and comfortable seating.

The century began with the unveiling of the U.K.’s contribution to the great wheel race in March 2000: the 443 ft. London Eye, able to carry more than 800 passengers over and above the Thames River.

Originally intended to only hold a temporary place on the Thames, the enormous success of the Eye not only earned it a permanent place on the London skyline, but also spurred scores of imitators hoping to repeat the wheel’s financial success.

According to a 2007 New York Times report, the wheels were thought to be all but lost, representing a time long past before the success of the Eye brought the Ferris wheel back into fashion.

Shortly holding the title of the world’s tallest, the Eye was surpassed by the Singapore Flyer, measuring 541 ft in the air, and offering views of landmarks up to 30 miles away.

The Flyer’s title will soon shift with the opening of the Great Beijing Wheel, topping the list at 682 ft, and with space enough for 1,920 passengers in 48 capsules.

Hoping to tap into the financial and tourism perks of a towering observational wheel, the Brisbane Times reported in August that Baghdad is hoping to build a wheel of its own to attract visitors to the war-torn capital.

However, not everyone is as excited about the prospect of observational wheels in the community. Earlier this year, columnist Mike Kelly expressed his displeasure at the announcement of a possible 30-story wheel to be built near the busy Little Teterboro Airport.

Such massive endeavors are not without their own unique set of challenges and dangers. Just this month, the 42-story Singapore Flyer stranded more than 172 people for hours as a fire caused the wheel’s electrical system to fail. Currently the world’s tallest, the Flyer contains 28 capsules, each able to hold 28 passengers.

Background: Little confidence

The first Ferris Wheel was constructed for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, meant to be a direct structural response to the Eiffel Tower that had dominated the Paris Exposition four years before.

Responding to an appeal for a novel alternative to simply building a taller tower, 32-year-old George Washington Gale Ferris undertook the daunting task of not only designing the massive, moving structure, but also convincing investors and fellow engineers it could work.

Possibly inspired by Henry Burden’s water wheel, which rested just down the Hudson River from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where Ferris attended school, the young engineer created a revolving structure that could hold 60 passengers, anchored on an 83,000-pound axle.

Related Topic: Catching up with skyscrapers

Although undoubtedly impressive, towering Ferris wheels still pale in comparison to the height of skyscrapers. Long the champion of structures that reached for the sky, the United States has fallen behind in recent years with projects such as Malaysia’s Petronas Towers and Taiwan’s Taipei 101 dwarfing any structures in the lower 48.

However, recently Dubai has taken the torch on the way to the world’s tallest building, announcing multiple projects striving for the highest on the globe. Unfortunately, many such efforts have been slowed or completely halted in light of the global economic slowdown, putting the rush to the heavens on hold, for now.

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