Hot Wheels

We are in the midst of a Ferris wheel craze. In 2009.

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There’s an international battle going on. The prize is height, width, rotation. Its weapons are not guns, nor tanks, nor arrows. The weapons of this battle are wheels. Ferris wheels.

This year, Germany will unveil the Great Berlin Wheel. Upon its completion, the wheel will be 606 feet high — as high as two football fields are long, as high as three Niagara Falls. It will be taller than what’s currently the tallest Ferris wheel in the world, the Singapore Flyer, a soon-to-be-disappointing 541 feet high. This year, China also plans to unveil the Beijing Great Wheel. At an awesome 682 feet high, it will be taller than both the Great Berlin Wheel and the Singapore Flyer (which only debuted as the world’s tallest Ferris wheel last year).

China has, in fact, built wheels in six cities since the start of the new millennium. The Great Dubai Wheel, at 607 feet, is set to enthrall visitors to Dubailand some time in 2009. There’s the Great Orlando Wheel in Florida (400 feet), and Australia’s four-story-high Southern Star, which just opened last month. There are whispers that a Great Wheel might hit Mumbai, though no one can say when. Or how tall.

In August of 2008, Iraq officials unveiled plans for the Baghdad Eye. Its inspiration — the 440-foot London Eye, built in 1999 — was the instigator of all this recent wheel-mania. At a proposed 650 feet, the Baghdad wheel would soar above the London Eye and most of its competitors, giving locals and visitors alike a spectacular view of the city.

The Singapore Flyer: The world’s tallest Ferris wheel.
For now.

“The wheel is the perfect symbol for the 21st century,” wrote Gereon Asmuth in Berlin’s TAZ newspaper. “It is completely superficial … a luxury, symbolizing nothing and at the same time, embodying the very intoxication of being momentarily raised above this nothingness.” The Great Wheel Corporation, responsible for all the wheels bearing the “Great Wheel” name (as well as the Singapore Flyer) has a less cynical take. The self-described “World Class Travel Tourism Iconic Attraction Wheel Developer” feels that we have a “very basic human desire” to see the world from on high. The company has simply harnessed this desire and created tourist attractions that appeal to everyone.

Whirligigs, ups-and-downs, perpendicular roundabouts — early versions of Ferris wheels, have been thrilling the public for centuries. In his novel The London Spy, the 17th-century satirist Ned Ward described the ride as he wandered around Bartholomew Fair. Children, sitting in “flying coaches,” climbed up, up, up, not knowing where they were going or what would happen to them. When they could go no higher, they would…come down again “according to the circular motion of the sphere they moved in.” Then up again! And around! And up…around…then down….

We can imagine why Ferris wheels were so exhilarating to 17th-century children. But why, in a century of airplane flight and space travel, does the slow, comforting stroll of a Ferris wheel continue to hold so much wonder? And why are countries falling over themselves to build them?

Ferris wheels haven’t so frenzied the public and excited city officials since George Washington Ferris debuted his version of the wheel at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. At 264 feet, the Ferris wheel was built to be America’s Eiffel Tower, and would become the archetype for all subsequent amusement wheels. For 50 cents, visitors to the Fair could embrace the horizon, sail above the trees, see for miles and miles past Chicago city limits, as far as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Indiana. Dressed up in 3,000 newfangled Edison lightbulbs, at night the wheel glowed like a god. Couples wanted to get married on it. Farm boys wrote home about it. In the end, Ferris’ wheel would bring in $736,000 during its run at the Columbian Exposition. The wheel had captured the world’s imagination, and other cities began to see the financial possibilities of the amusement ride. Wheels based on Ferris’ model sprung up from London to Paris to New York.

As for the Chicago wheel, it was dismantled and moved around until it was eventually dynamited and turned to scrap. Ferris never received much of his wheels’ profits, and as Ferris wheels became ubiquitous, their thrill diminished as did their ability to generate money. The fortunes of George Washington Ferris rapidly declined and he died alone in a Pittsburgh hospital at age 37.

    The world’s first wheel, at the Chicago 1893

Columbian Exhibition.

But despite the rather ignominious end of Mr. Ferris, the promise of his wheel has never quite died. Maybe it was something about the new millennium that made us want to reinvent the wheel, maybe it was the innovation of the “observation wheel” that increased rider capacity to as many as 2,000 passengers at once. Whatever it is, the big wheels keep on turnin’. Like their fin de siècle counterparts, today’s wheel-endowed cities dream of tourist hordes, increased development, and cash galore. Five years after its opening, the London Eye was that city’s top-grossing tourist attraction; 30 million people have ridden it since 1999. That these wheels still have the capacity to make money and bring visitors is undeniable. In this, they have proven their utilitarian value. But it doesn’t answer the essential question: Why Ferris wheels?

Florian Bollen, chairman of the Great Wheel Corporation, wouldn’t have sold a single wheel had he not convinced city officials of the wheels’ role in spurring development. Yet it was when I read the following in a press release that something clicked. The Great Beijing Wheel, Bollen thought, would not just be a moneymaker, but would also be a new symbol of a city’s “progress and the achievements of its people.” Today’s Ferris wheels, beyond generating income and being neat to ride, have become icons. They are monuments of sorts, monuments not to fallen soldiers or thwarted uprisings but to the iconic image itself. They all look the same and function the same, and they’re all big. But they don’t function like other national icons — Big Ben, for instance, or the Statue of Liberty. Having a wheel is simply about a country’s ability to have a wheel. It’s become an international symbol of status devoid of any specific national characteristics. In the case of Iraq or Dubai or China, it is also a symbol of belonging to the global community. A Ferris wheel says “I attract tourists,” but more importantly it says, “I am in a country where people want to be.” In this, it’s a modern monument in the way that hosting the Olympics or the World’s Cup is, a roving celebration of belonging. Even if Gereon Asmuth is right, and Ferris wheels are superficial and transient symbols, they are probably more potent markers of civic pride than the dusty old monuments no one remembers, that you can’t even ride.

It goes without saying that all these wheel projects seemed a lot sexier before the recent global economic collapse. The Beijing Wheel has postponed opening until 2010. The Great Orlando Wheel’s Web site says the project has been put on hold indefinitely. The Baghdad Eye — with its panopticon name — has remained a distant dream for the Iraqi Tourism Board, which still hasn’t announced when or where the attraction will appear. Even if they do succeed in securing the funds, citizens of Shanghai, Dubai, and Baghdad might wonder if a giant multimillion dollar Ferris wheel is the most appropriate investment for their respective cities’ future. Whether it brings in tourist dollars or not, who wants a monument symbolizing nothing in times of hardship and hopelessness?

And yet, and yet… What is a more iconic image of romance and optimism than two young lovers gazing across the world from the vantage of a Ferris wheel car? “This is the wheel, love/ Stately and real, love,” wrote G. Valisi and Harry C. Clyde back in 1893 in “The Ferris Wheel Waltz.” To this day, people still marry regularly on Ferris wheels. The Independent has ranked the London Eye as Number 2 in its list of the world’s top 50 wedding destinations. Austria’s Riesenrad, the lovely Nouveau-era wheel that was the backdrop for The Third Man, is Number 22.

I’ll never shake an image I saw in The Washington Post: a group of children in a rickety wooden Ferris wheel in a Karachi slum. The wheel had more in common with its distant ancestors than it does with today’s shiny, air-conditioned observation wheels. But the smiles on the kids’ faces as they rode high above an old garbage heap was unforgettable. The Ferris wheel takes you nowhere but up and around. And it is precisely the lack of direction that makes you feel as if you are going everywhere. It doesn’t feed us, doesn’t clothe us, doesn’t give us a home. But man, we’re told, does not live on bread alone.

The bird’s eye view, the miracle of height, the slow revolution that mimics the earth’s movement around the sun! Cheaper than a plane ride and more accessible, the Ferris wheel is magical. Thrusting humans out into sky to watch a city like angel flaneurs — Ferris’ vision can still turn any city’s everyday experience into a dream. Whether you’re floating above Dubai or Dubuque, the Ferris wheel offers a renewed perspective of street life.

Hard times shouldn’t stop us from reaching to the clouds and Ferris wheels are as good a way as any to get there. Perhaps a collective ride high in the sky for no reason at all is just what we could use right now.

This is the wheel, love
Stately and real, love
Come, we will sail around
Let’s leave this common ground
Gently moving up and higher yet
Nearer than to heaven many get
Then returning
back to earth and its yearning
Back to earthly care and debt
— from “The Ferris Wheel Waltz” • 6 February 2009

 

Stefany Anne Golberg is a writer and multi-media artist. She has written for The Washington Post (Outlook), Lapham’s Quarterly, New England Review, and others. Stefany is currently a columnist for The Smart Set and Critic-in-Residence at Drexel University. A book of Stefany’s selected essays can be found here. She can be reached at stefanyanne@gmail.com.
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