Media Resource

A Flight on the 1893 Ferris Wheel

Today, ferris wheels can be found at nearly every amusement park, boardwalk, and carnival. The original "Ferris Wheel" was built as the central attraction of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Named for inventor George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr., the steam-powered steel Ferris Wheel served as the blueprint for modern ferris wheels. At 264 feet (80.4 meters) high, it was five times the size of the largest wooden “pleasure wheels” of the day. Passengers paid 50 cents per ticket (equivalent to $16.86 in 2023) to ride for two revolutions over 20 minutes. The Ferris Wheel could accommodate up to 2,160 riders. Nearly 1.5 million Ferris Wheel tickets were sold throughout the fair, slightly more than the population of Chicago at the time.

Funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Chicago00: A Flight on the 1893 Ferris Wheel is a two-minute virtual reality (VR) video simulating the experience of riding the original Ferris Wheel. It features a 3D model animation and historical photographs superimposed over drone footage tracing the exact path of the original wheel. The video is 360 degrees. In a compatible browser (Chrome, Firefox, Edge, Safari, or Opera), you can click and drag your mouse to look around. If using the YouTube mobile app, you can move and tilt your device to look around. The video is also 3D, so it may be compatible with certain VR headsets. If you have 3D glasses, you can click the gear icon to toggle the settings from 2D to anaglyph.

This video is part of a more comprehensive look at the Columbian Exposition. The Chicago00: 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition website features 16 VR panoramas of sites around the fairgrounds, combining historical photographs with 360-degree views of the present-day landscape. The Chicago00 project has produced several other immersive multimedia experiences, including experiences of the 1871 Great Chicago Fire and the 1933 World’s Fair.

Classroom Connections

The teacher’s guide The 1893 World’s Fair and the First Ferris Wheel provides an overview of the World's Columbian Exposition within its broader historical context. The corresponding lesson plan A Spectrum of Perspectives: The Gilded Age and Progressive Era Through the Lens of the 1893 World’s Fair (grades 9-12) uses primary sources from the World’s Columbian Exposition as an entry point to introduce debates and developments of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.

Learn more about recreation in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in the EDSITEment lesson Having Fun: Leisure and Entertainment at the Turn of the Twentieth Century.

Explore additional VR panoramas of the fairgrounds on the Chicago00: 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition website.

Discussion Questions

  • How does the 1893 Ferris Wheel compare to ferris wheels that you have seen or experienced in the present day?
  • The Ferris Wheel was designed to rival the Eiffel Tower, built as the centerpiece of the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, France. When completed, the Eiffel Tower was the tallest human-made structure in the world at 1,024 feet (312 meters). Why do you think countries felt the need to outdo each other? Is competition necessary for technological innovation and advancement?
  • When the Ferris Wheel was built, only a few buildings in Chicago were taller. It was the tallest structure most passengers had ever been on. How do you think passengers felt being that high up for the first time? How do you think the experience shaped their thoughts and expectations about cities, technology, and the future?
  • The costs of travel, lodging, admission, and food made attending the exposition too expensive for most Americans. The average worker earned $1 to $1.50 per day, meaning even many local Chicagoans could not afford to ride the Ferris Wheel. What would you think about going to work every day, seeing the Ferris Wheel in the distance, knowing that you could not buy a ticket?
  • In a now-famous letter to his parents, novelist Hamlin Garland wrote, “Sell the cook stove if necessary and come. You must see this fair.” Many visitors certainly made financial sacrifices or took on additional work to afford the trip. Why would people make such an effort to see the 1893 World’s Fair?
  • What do you think about using VR technology to simulate historical events and experiences? Does VR technology help you better understand what it was like living in the past? Can you think of any possible drawbacks or limitations in using VR technology to examine the past?
  • If you were designing a historical VR simulation, what event, experience, or place and time would you try to recreate?
About Chicago00

Chicago00 is a partnership between the Chicago History Museum and filmmaker Geoffrey Alan Rhodes. Since 2016, Chicago00 has been producing virtual experiences of Chicago’s historic stories. In addition to the virtual reality video experience of the ferris wheel, Chicago00: 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition offers 16 virtual reality panoramas revealing the history of the Midway Plaisance and Jackson Park on the south side of Chicago. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this video/web resource do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Learn more at the Chicago00 website.