Coming Full Circle: The History of the Ferris Wheel


Every year, people travel from all over New York State and beyond to experience The Great New York State Fair. Now in its 177th year, there’s plenty of history to be found alongside the hundreds of creative food vendors, dozens of concerts, and nearly 70 rides and attractions. And you’ll find some of the richest in the Fair’s two towering Ferris wheels.

When the Wheel Began to Turn

The “official” first Ferris wheel was created by George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. as a landmark ride for the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. And although Ferris based his design on the Somers wheel (unveiled a year earlier in 1892), he was able to win a patent fight in court and ultimately was credited with the invention. The massive Ferris wheel—dubbed after its creator—towered at 264 feet, rotated on a 71-ton, 45.5-foot axle and weighed more than 89,000 pounds.

But if you were looking for a cozy, romantic ride to the stars in your own private cart, you wouldn’t find it here. The wheel held 36 bus-sized cars, each able to seat up to 60 people—that’s 2,160 passengers—and took a whopping 20 minutes to complete its full two-revolution ride. Because the wheel was so costly to operate, tickets to this colossal ride cost 50 cents—the same price as tickets to the actual fair!

Fun fact: After being relocated a few times, the wheel was deemed too expensive to maintain and officially retired in 1906. Its metal was recycled and used to build the USS Illinois battleship during World War I.

Syracuse, NY: The Real Birthplace of the Ferris Wheel?

While the world may have met the giant Ferris wheel at the 1893 World’s Fair, a smaller version of the ride actually debuted to fairgoers more than 52 years earlier right here at The Great New York State Fair!

In the winter of 1849, canal workers Samuel Hurst and James Mulholland found they had nothing to do. So they left their worksite and began to construct a 50-foot revolving wheel using a man-powered rope and pulley system based on a similar ride Mulholland had seen in his native Scotland. The quaint ride—which seated only four people at a time—was unveiled at that year’s NYS Fair, where it quickly became a hit attraction among the Fair’s 80,000 visitors. When its time in the limelight came to an end, the wheel was sold to a hotel owner who installed it on Baldwin Island before later shipping it to Albany for another fair.

Interesting tidbit: All Ferris wheels can actually trace their origins way back to the early 1600s at local fairs in Europe that featured small, hand-cranked rides similar to the one the NYS Fair debuted in 1849.

So while there may be a little controversy over which version of the ride is truly revolutionary, it’s generally agreed that the modern-day Ferris wheels that stand tall on the NYS Fair Midway haven’t strayed too far from the original design—whether it originated in 1849 or 1893.

Speaking of revolutionary, the NYS Fair did have a pretty cool version of the Ferris wheel back in the ’80s and early ’90s: a double wheel called the Skywheel that dominated the Fair’s skyline for more than a decade.

Get Ready to Spin at the NYS Fair!

So maybe NY fairgoers can’t officially claim the Ferris wheel as their state’s invention. But they can visit the site of Hurst and Mulholland’s famous wheel and enjoy the majesty of not one but two modern-day wheels. The NYS Fair’s Giant Wheel stands more than 90 feet tall and moves about 1,200 passengers per hour. Its smaller counterpart, the Patriot Wheel, stands a still-impressive 70 feet high.

Both are a perfect opportunity for the whole family to take in the sights and sounds of the Fair—with much better odds of that private ride to the stars.