History's Headlines: Bethlehem Steel moves a big wheel


Go to Dorney Park or just about any other big amusement park and what do you see? Rides… lots and lots of rides. They zoom, they flip, they fly into the air to where it seems like they are headed for the stars and suddenly drop with a whoosh and clatter. All this to entertain and thrill the crowds that cluster at their feet. But all these rides have one thing in common: the same great grandfather. That ancestor was the first Ferris Wheel.

Named after its creator, George Washington Ferris, it was designed to be a centerpiece of the amusement midway for the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago (aka the Chicago World's Fair or the White City), which was itself being held to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America. And the Lehigh Valley's Bethlehem Iron, later Steel Company, was to play a crucial role in that first Ferris Wheel's creation.

The concept of a wheel ride apparently first saw the light of day in the Middle East. In 1620 an English traveler, Peter Mundy, passing through what is now Turkey stopped at a small village and noticed a strange device that moved on an axle in a circle held up by large posts. "Children sitt (sic) on little seats hung around several parts thereof, and through it turne right upp and downe and that the children are sometimes on the upper part of the wheele and sometimes on the lower, yet the always sitt upright," he wrote in his diary.

By the 18th century the idea of these "pleasure wheels" swept Europe. They were powered by strong men with hand cranks. The first known pleasure wheel in America arrived in Waltham, Georgia in 1848. Created by Antonio Maguino, a French immigrant, it had cars made out of packing crates and was a big draw.

But the idea remained small until Ferris came up with his concept of a giant, steel wheel amusement ride. A successful engineer and bridge builder, he had formed G.W.G. Ferris & Company in Pittsburgh. The company's chief business was to conduct scientific tests on the steel used in bridges. These tests convinced Ferris that a giant steel wheel ride was possible.

At a meeting, Danial Burnham, a Chicago architect and fair booster, challenged engineers and architects to create something like the Eiffel Tower that had been the center of attention at the 1889 Paris Exposition. It was this challenge that Ferris decided to take up. As Ferris was later to tell a reporter for the Review of Reviews magazine, the concept came to him all at once:

We used to have a Saturday afternoon club, chiefly engineers at the World's Fair. It was at one of these dinners down in a Chicago chop house that I hit on the idea. I remember remarking I would build a wheel, a monster. I got some paper and began sketching it out…before the dinner was over I had sketched out almost the entire detail, and my plan has never varied an item from that day.

Ferris's plan was indeed visionary. The wheel was to be 250 feet high and supported by two 140 foot towers. Thirty-six cars, each of which would hold 40 people for a total of 1,440 passengers, were to be attached. The reaction was a combination of shock, amusement and skepticism. Engineer friends told him he would bankrupt his business and himself. Besides that, it would all blow over in a strong wind. Exposition officials told him he was crazy. "Ferris is a crackpot. He has wheels in his head," one said. It took months of talks just to get the permits. And then came the funding needed- $300,000 to pay for the project.

Weather conditions were bad, and the ground was swampy but finally the foundations were in place and the towers were rising. But now Ferris faced another challenge. He would need a huge axle, one the size and weight of which had never been made in America. And there was only one place in the country and one man in America and one company who could do it: John Fritz and Bethlehem Iron. Whatever correspondence might have existed between Ferris and Fritz has long since disappeared. But as an engineer he must have known that since the early 1880s Bethlehem Iron had been filling contracts for the U.S. Navy, which was deep in a modernization program.

Aware that Bethlehem needed a heavy metal forging facility to create armor plate and forge cannon, Fritz went to Europe at the direction of board member Robert Sayre. The ever-secretive Krupps of Germany would not allow him near their works. But Schneider & Company, the French industrial family dynasty that ran that country's great Le Creusot Iron Works, was more accommodating. Writing in 1883, roughly the same time as Fritz's visit, French author Guy de Maupassant described Creusot as a noisy, coal smelling, smoke filled place, "a hundred giant chimneys belching forth smoke…the kingdom of Iron where reigns his majesty Fire."

After much negotiation Fritz was also able to secure the rights for forging machinery from Sir Joseph Whitworth and Company, a British firm. Fritz returned to America with enough technical information to get the Navy contracts at the low bid of $4,500,000. Working closely with his aide, skilled metallurgist Russell W. Davenport, Fritz in 1888 set to work. The European's forging equipment was re-designed, expanded on and improved by Fritz.

In 1889 Bethlehem began the construction of the giant steel hammer needed for the forging. When it was finished on June 3, 1891 it was 90 feet tall, an iron monster with a 125 ton iron hammer. When in operation it is said to have made all South Bethlehem housewives' cupboards rattle from the vibration. Bethlehem Iron created its own full-scale size model of the forge hammer for its exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair. A photo taken at the time shows Fritz, an almost ant -size figure, standing underneath it.

It was from Fritz's forge that the first modern U.S. Navy, the so called Great White Fleet, would shatter the remnants of imperial Spain's empire in America and Asia in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and herald the nation's arrival as a world power. "In 1892," writes Craig Bartholomew and Lance Metz in their book, "The Anthracite Iron Industry in the Lehigh Valley," "the Bethlehem Iron Company possessed the finest steel forging plant in the world, capable of producing armor plate and cannon of almost any size."

And now, thanks to Ferris, the great device had a chance to forge steel for peace. The end result was a 86,320 pound axle, 33 inches in diameter and 45 and a half feet long, the largest piece of forged steel known to have been created to that date. Arriving in Chicago, in what one source calls the "amazingly short time of two hours," it was hauled up and rested gently into place. There was still much work to do and delays were common but on June 21, 1893, all was ready. Ferris, his wife, and several dignitaries got in the box car size cars and rose skyward as a band played "America." It worked like the well-oiled machine of steel that it was.

Over the next 19 weeks more than 1.4 million people paid the high price of 50 cents to glide up into the sky. For a generation who had never been this high up in the air in their lives, it was the ultimate thrill ride. And when a violent wind storm did strike the fair, the Ferris Wheel stood strong and tall. The total take for the Ferris Wheel was $725,000, more than covering what it had cost to build.

In a just world George Ferris would have had a future of success laid out ahead of him. But it was not to be. The fair board demanded most of the revenue and out of the woodwork came patent lawyers who claimed their clients had the idea first. Ferris lost his company to bankruptcy and his wife to a divorce. Worse perhaps for Ferris, his fellow engineers mocked him for using his scientific skills to create nothing but "a toy" and therefore beneath the dignity of the profession. On November 26, 1896 he died in a Pittsburgh hospital of a combination of kidney failure and typhoid fever at the age of 37.

His invention was to live 10 years longer. After appearing in St Louis at the 1904 World's Fair where it made money, it was rejected in an early version of NIMBY as people feared it would bring on noise and yes, traffic. On May 11, 1906 the giant Ferris Wheel was blown apart with 200 pounds of dynamite, a pile of rubble, axle and all.

But others copied the idea that Ferris had started. In 1897, one similar to that created by Ferris opened in Vienna, Austria. Despite being slightly battered in World War II, it is carrying visitors to this day. Others opened in Paris and London in the early 20th century.

Around the world parks sprouted them. And no county fair in America thought itself complete without a small one.

The largest one in the world today operates in Las Vegas. Created in 2014, like its many brothers and sisters it is still known after its creator as a Ferris Wheel.