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Circus and Theme Park Innovations

Ferris Wheel
Ferris Wheel
Related History of Theme Parks
Theme Parks
Find out where all the great roller coaster rides are today, with About's Guide to theme parks, Arthur Levine.
Amusement Park Physics
How different park rides work, and the physics behind them.
Circus Study Guide
Circus History
Circus History II
Circus Lore
Historic Circus Wagon
The First American Circus
By Mary Bellis

The Ferris Wheel - George W. Ferris
The first ferris wheel was designed by George W. Ferris, a bridge-builder from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Ferris began his career in the railroad industry and then pursued an interest in bridge building. He understood the growing need for structural steel, Ferris founded G.W.G. Ferris & Co. in Pittsburgh, a firm that tested and inspected metals for railroads and bridge builders.

He built the Ferris Wheel for the 1893 World's Fair, which was held in Chicago to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's landing in America. The Chicago Fair's organizers wanted something that would rival the Eiffel Tower. Gustave Eiffel had built the tower for the Paris World's Fair of 1889, which honored the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.

Finding a suitable design proved difficult: Architect Daniel H. Burnham, who was in charge of selecting the project for the Chicago World's Fair, complained at an engineer's banquet in 1891 about having found nothing that "met the expectations of the people". Among the audience was George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., owner of a firm that tested iron and steel. He had an inspiration and scribbled the design for the Ferris Wheel on a napkin during the dinner.

It was considered an engineering wonder: two 140-foot steel towers supported the wheel; they were connected by a 45-foot axle, the largest single piece of forged steel ever made up until that time. The wheel section had a diameter of 250 feet and a circumference of 825 feet. Two 1000-horsepower reversible engines powered the ride. Thirty-six wooden cars held up to sixty riders each. The ride cost fifty cents and made $726,805.50 during the World's Fair. The original Ferris Wheel was destroyed in 1906, but there are other ferris wheels at theme parks and carnivals everywhere.

George Ferris
A contemporary newspaper article describing the Ferris Wheel at the Chicago fair. "To the health of my husband and the success of the Ferris wheel."
The Big Ferris Wheel
"A wild-eyed man with wheels in his head"
The Ferris Wheel
When George Gale Ferris built his first wheel he probably never dreamed of the trend he was starting. However, his wheel was huge, and certainly not very portable. It took The Eli Bridge Company to develop a practical, portable wheel.

Modern trampolining (called flashfold) has only emerged in the last 49-50 years. The prototype apparatus was built by George Nissen, an American circus acrobat and Olympic medallist. He invented the trampoline in his garage in 1936 and subsequently patented the device. The US Air Force, and later the Space Agencies, used trampolines to train their pilots and astronauts. The sport debuted in the Sydney Olympics (2000) as an official medal sport with four events: individual, synchronized, double mini and tumbling. Athletes can now achieve up to two seconds of airtime for the performance of gymnastic feats.

Roller Coasters - John A. Miller
John Miller was a prolific inventor who was granted over 100 patents, and invented many of the safety devices used in today's roller coasters, including the 'Safety Chain Dog' and 'Under Friction Wheels'. Miller designed toboggans before starting work at the Dayton Fun House and Riding Device Manufacturing Company, which later became the National Amusement Device Corporation. Together with partner Norman Bartlett, John Miller invented his first amusement ride (patented on October 14, 1926) called the Flying Turns ride. The Flying Turns was the prototype for the first roller coaster ride, however, it did not have tracks. Miller went on to invent several roller coasters with his new partner Harry Baker. Harry Baker built the famous Cyclone ride at Astroland Park, Coney Island.

John A. Miller
Miller has been called the "Thomas Edison" of roller coasters.
Roller Coaster History from Patents
It is generally believed that the first roller coaster in the United States was built by L. A. Thompson and opened at Coney Island, New York, in June, 1884. This ride is described by Thompson's patent #310,966, Roller Coasting Structure, filed April, 1884, and issued January, 1885. 

History of Carousels
The carousel originated in Europe, but reached its greatest fame in America in the 1900's.

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