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Ferris Wheel Medallions

I don't really know how my interest in the big wheels started.  Like most people I have enjoyed many a ride on the big wheel at the fairground and have seen the Vienna wheel in the film "The Third Man".  I started my collection with one of the Earl's Court medallions (more about which later!).  Then my husband was looking through postcards in a little junk/antique shop locally and found a postcard of the very wheel.  It was actually written on the back by somebody about to take a ride and they were writing the card as they were on the wheel.  This was in 1905.  This really aroused my interest and I bought further medallions.  My husband collects tokens and when he was out and about looking for them he also looked for my big wheel medals and postcards.

The originator was George Washington Gate Ferris (hence the name Ferris wheel).  He was an engineering student at Reseelar Polytechnic in America and received a degree in Civil Engineering in June 1881.  He established a successful bridge and construction company and 12 years later became one of a group of engineers asked to come up with some spectacular edifice for the Chicago Columbian Exhibition to rival the Eiffel tower at the 1889 Paris Exposition.  Ferris came up with the idea of a big wheel.

Although some pleasure wheels were already in existence they were much smaller and less spectacular than the one Ferris dreamed up.  It was to be 5 times as high as any wheel already in existence and carry 30-40 more passengers.  It weighed 1,200 tons and had 36 cars each carrying 40 people.  It was also to be higher than the tallest building in Chicago.  Ferris had a bright young partner, William F. Gronau and a dedicated work crew and the wheel was designed, built and ready to operate by 21 May 1883.  I have managed to obtain a book which although a novel describes the building of the original Ferris Wheel.

Many medals, tokens and souvenirs were made.  I have several of them.  A rather amusing one was a silver spoon, the bowl of which showed the wheel in operation with 9 passengers in various stages of falling from the wheel.  There was also a song written and sheet music produced.  It was entitled "The Ferris Wheel Waltz" and one of the verses went:

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

Greatest Mechanical Achievement of the Age

One of the medals proclaims -
"Greatest Mechanical Achievement Of The Age".

When the exhibition closed in 1893 the wheel stood idle for a year and then was removed to a suburban Chicago site and started operating again in 1895.  A year later Ferris died aged just 37.  In 1903 the Ferris Wheel Company went bankrupt and the wheel was auctioned to a junk dealer for $1,800.  He operated it for a while then shipped it to St. Louis, Missouri.  In 1904 it became once again a feature at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition.  It was abandoned eventually by its owner when the fair closed, and finally on 11 May 1906 was dynamited into scrap metal.  A sad ending for an engineering wonder.

The Ferris Wheel

A British engineer wrote to Ferris asking for his help in designing a wheel in England in 1893.  Ferris declined, but within a year the big wheel started to take shape at Earl's Court.  This was a project of the Gigantic Wheel and Recreation Towers Company Ltd.  A retired US Navy Lieutenant James W. Graydon applied and received 2 British patents in 1893-94.  The first described embellishment which became part of the Earl's Court Wheel, e.g. recreation rooms at the top of the towers and lifts leading to them. You can see these on the pictures.  The detail design of the Earl's Court Wheel was made by J. J. Webster based on H. Cecil Booth's general design.  This in turn was based on photographs of the original Ferris wheel.  Ten of the 40 cars were furnished with easy chairs and settees for first-class passengers who paid twice the general fare and half of these were reserved for non-smokers.  Construction was under the charge of W. B. Bassett, who went on, as I will tell you later to construct the Paris Wheel and the famous wheels at Blackpool and Vienna.

The wheel was in operation from 1895 until October 1906.  So much interest was shown in it that before the actual opening day a royal party, headed by the Duke and Duchess of York (later George V and Queen Mary) insisted on being allowed to sample the ride.  Power was furnished by 2 x 16 horsepower Robey engines.  It had one recorded major breakdown.  In May 1896 it suddenly stopped at about nine o'clock in the evening.  Most of the passengers were forced to spend the night aboard.  During this time seamen from a docked ship climbed round the wheel taking food and drink and reassuring passengers.  At midnight the band of the Grenadier guards was brought in to provide music.  Release came at seven o'clock the next morning.  When passengers were finally brought down to ground they were compensated for their ordeal by being presented with a £5 note.  This caused a new publicity for the wheel - everybody hoped it would get stuck again while they were on it.

Medals were issued for each year the wheel was in existence in different metals - some bronze and some white metal.  The obverse had a picture of the wheel and the reverse gives details, usually reading "THE GIGANTIC WHEEL AT EARLS COURT IS 284 FEET IN DIAMETER AND WEIGHS ABOUT 90 TONS.   THERE ARE 40 CARS EACH TO CARRY 30 PERSONS.   FROM THE TOP OF THE WHEEL ABOUT 300 FEET, WINDSOR CASTLE IS VISIBLE ON THE WEST."

There were also other medals than the yearly ones.  In 1897 souvenir medals were issued.  These came in 3 sizes (32, 38 and 45 mm) and had a bust of Queen Victoria on the reverse and a picture of the wheel on the obverse.  There was also a medallion struck for the Tandem Melting Syndicate stating that the wheel's bearings were made from the same metal as the medallion.  I have put some of them at the end of the article.

Early medals were mostly signed H. Greuber, a die sinker who operated a London business specializing in advertizing novelties.

Shiny silver medal c1975

Another medal of the Earl's Court Wheel is circa 1975.  It is made in silver and encapsulated.  It is part of a series by John Betjamin called "Bygone Britain" and I was very pleased to obtain it.

During the period the wheel was in operation 2.5 million passengers paid their one or two shillings for a 35 minute ride.

Bassett's next wheel was in Blackpool and erected in 1896.  The famous tower was erected in 1895 and was an instant success with visitors.  This was built by the Tower Co. and their rivals the Winter Gardens Co. wanted to build a competitive attraction.  They set up the Blackpool Gigantic Wheel Co. Ltd who contracted Bassett to construct a wheel similar to the one at Earl's Court.  It was completed in August 1896.  It was smaller than the London wheel and different from earlier wheels because the cars were cantilevered out and gave the passengers a feeling of being suspended in space.  Also to increase revenue the Blackpool wheel operated twice as fast as the London one.  For sixpence passengers got a 15 minute ride.  The wheel was not a great success and several attempts were made to increase its popularity.  The first was to refit 2 cars, one as a tea room and the other as a ping-pong room.  In 1898 the wheel was painted red, white and blue to attract attention.  Again this did not succeed and the wheel carried on not making much money until it took its final turn on 20th October 1928.  Dismantling was completed in June 1929.  The cars were auctioned off for use as garden sheds and one still survived in 1976.  Another was purchased and used as a cafeacute; so this gives you some idea of the size of the cars.

Considering how long it lasted there are not that many medallions of this wheel.  There is a 37mm unsigned medal in white metal showing a view of the wheel on the obverse and a reverse inscription "Erected within six months.  Opened 22 August 1896.  Height 220 feet   Weight 440 tons.  Full load 750 people".

Erected Within Six Months Blackpool Gigantic Wheel

Another medal which I particularly like was struck in 1928 and is made from the metal of the dismantled wheel.

I also have a piece of crested china by Arcadian, circa 1925 showing the wheel with the coat of arms of Blackpool.  Also a cup and saucer commemorating the wheel.

From Metal Comprising Parts Of The Wheel

Another wheel whose construction was supervised by Bassett was the famous Riesnrad Great Wheel in Vienna.  This was begun in November 1896 and completed in June 1897.  It was an immediate success and became a permanent addition to the Vienna skyline.  It has been in operation every since, I'm not sure if it is still there but I think it might be.  It was severely damaged by fire as a result of bombs on 8 April 1945 but was soon in action again.  Several stunts have taken place on this wheel.  On one occasion a woman climbed from a car and suspended herself by her teeth from a rope at the bottom of the car.  She refused to get down when the wheel was stopped and when it started up again completed a full circuit.  On another occasion a woman took a horse on the top of a car for a complete circuit.  Also a troupe of acrobats performed handstands on the top of a car as the wheel went round.

Several medallions have been struck for this wheel.  I have 2 good luck medallions one dated 1968 and another as late as 1984.  Some of these good luck pieces vary because at one time the number of cars on the wheel altered.

I have a first day cover showing a stamp with the wheel on to commemorate 200 years of the Prater, where the wheel is, which was issued in 1982.  Also an Italian telephone card with the wheel on.

Bassett now turned his eyes towards Paris and suggested a big wheel for the Paris Exposition.  The pride of my collection is the plate issued to commemorate the exposition and now well over 100 years old.  In 1889 construction began on "La Grande Roue".  It was only a few hundred yards from the Eiffel Tower on the Avenue de Suffren.  It was a feature of Paris for many years and was demolished after World War 1.  Its 40 cars were used as temporary housing for people displaced during the war.  No known medals are available but I have it on a small consome token.

During the millenium an illuminated ferris wheel was erected in Place de la Concorde.  I have a piece from the paper showing part of it.

I have other medallions of big wheels from various funfairs in the world, one from Rome, one from Jeddah and several from different places in England.

When the London Eye was proposed I wrote to them, enclosing a sample of the medals issued for the Earls Court Wheel, and suggesting they should issue them for sale to people having a ride.  They never took it up but I'm sure they would have made a lot of money if they had.  A medallion is a souvenir that can last for years, can be produced fairly economically and make a profit selling for even a small price.

Useful References and Links:

Ferris Wheels: an illustrated history by Anderson

Pam Williams
November 2006

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