Today, we ride a Ferris wheel. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
Here's a great line from
Julian Jaynes' book, The Origin of
Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral
Mind. He says:
There is an awkward moment at the top of a Ferris
wheel when, having come up the inside curvature,
where we are facing into a firm structure of
confident girders, suddenly that structure
disappears, and we are thrust out into the sky for
the outward curve down.
Jaynes uses the Ferris wheel as a metaphor for that
instant of uncertainty when a new truth reveals
itself to us. He knows that the moment of discovery
-- or of understanding -- holds a thrill of
So how did the Ferris wheel, and its strange
metaphorical power, come into being? George Ferris,
a young civil engineer, invented it. The new Eiffel
Tower had been a nettle in Ferris's mind. The
French seized our imagination with their crazy
tower. Now, America had to answer. By 1892 Ferris
knew what to do. The French had driven a spire
upward. He would create a great Ezekiel's Wheel in
The idea came to him in a Chicago chop house. He
was dining with engineers working on the Chicago
World's Fair. By supper's end, he'd sketched the
It was a 250-foot wheel with 36 passenger boxes. It
would turn on a 45 foot axle. He would levitate 42
tons of steel into the air and spin it around.
Ferris wouldn't use rigid spokes. Instead, he'd
make a web of taut cables -- like a bicycle wheel.
Of course, the other engineers didn't like it. It
would fall over in the wind. It'd never carry its
own weight. But Ferris prevailed. He built the
wheel for the Chicago Fair, and it ran like a Swiss
watch. When a hurricane swept the fairground, the
wheel stood fast.
Ferris died just four years later. He was only 38.
He didn't live to see the spawn of his machine --
the first roller coaster -- the soul-testing,
gut-wrenching, machinery of today's amusement
parks. Before he died, someone asked if he had
other projects in mind. "I'd better not say," he
said, "some of them might be too frightening."
Ferris, it seems, finally saw that his great wheel
did something much more than compete with the
French. It really did thrust the rider "out into
the sky, for the outward curve down."
So it is with good ideas. They rise suddenly out of
the blue. They carry things we don't expect. No one
thinks about Ferris wheels competing with the
French today. Instead, that huge wheel and all that
followed it speak to us of thrill and motion -- and
the very nature of new ideas.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Hambleton, R., Ferris. The Branding of
America. Dublin, NH: Yankee Books, 19??, pp.
Jaynes, J., The Origin of Consciousness in
the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. Boston:
Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976, Chapter 3, p. 67.
Note added in April, 2010: Since this episode aired in 1991, much more attention has been paid
to Ferris and his work. We recommend
this excellent site
for more on the man, the wheel, and a new ASCE book by
Richard Weingardt: Circles in the Sky.
Image provided by Rod
An early postcard showing Ferris's orginal Ferris
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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