Mr. Ferris and His Wheel by Kathryn Gibbs Davis and illustrated by Gilbert Ford is a revelation! I had no idea that this structure that I always thought of as a slightly sketchy carnival ride had such an interesting inception and remarkable beginning.
When, with only ten months to go before the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, a contest is announced inviting Americans to outdo the star of the 1899 World's Fair, the Eiffel Tower. George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., an "ambitious young mechanical engineer" who has already designed some of the country's biggest bridges, tunnels and roads, is inspired. Where all the other entries seem to be shooting for a bigger, better version of the Eiffel Tower, Ferris has an amazing idea - an idea for a structure that will be "both stronger and lighter" than the Eiffel Tower. Based in Pittsburgh, Ferris wants to build his marvel out of steel.
Ford's illustrations, done mostly in twilight blues and purples, are full of motion and details, perfectly evocative of the era. Davis's writing is engaging, and she uses sidebars to share additional facts outside of the narrative that give context to the time period and the challenges Ferris faced. Like the fact that, while the judges, after much dilly-dallying and in desperation, finally name Ferris the winner of the contest, the refuse to give him any money to fund his project.
What surprised me most of all as I read Mr. Ferris and His Wheel was the wheel itself that he built for the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago - it looked more like the London Eye than the two-seater, swinging bucket type Ferris Wheels that are so common today. Ferris's first wheel had living room sized passenger cars that held forty red velvet chairs for passengers. Another amazing fact, Ferris's wheel had 3,000 electric lightbulbs that lit it up at night. This was at a time when most homes were still lit by kerosene lamps and candles. And, by the end of the nineteen week long fair, Ferris's wheel had revolved more than 10,000 times and carried more than 1.5 million passengers!
Source: Review Copy