February 14 is a date which has become synonymous with sentiment soaked in commercialism and awkward obligation. Though the holiday seems content to reside in the aisles of gaudy gift shops and mall jewelry stores, it is important to remember that this date also witnessed the birth of a dreamer; a man who served as a testament to the human spirit and an architect of passion.
Born this day in 1859, by 1891, George Washington Gale Ferris Jr. was no stranger to passion. At 32 years old, he was already an accomplished engineer, entrepreneur and owner of two successful construction businesses in both Chicago and New York. Having married his sweetheart, Margaret Ann Beatty, several years prior, George Ferris appeared an unstoppable success. He seemed an irrepressible tour de force in the world of invention -- a fact which became even more apparent when he attended an engineers' banquet in Chicago, a city which had just recently won the bid to host the World's Fair. The fair's directors issued a challenge to the crowd to produce a centerpiece for the fair which was unrivaled, even by imagination. Ferris, who had previously toyed with the idea of creating a movable structure inspired by a river water wheel, immediately began sketching ideas and blueprints on a nearby food-stained napkin. The crude drawings from that evening remained the basis of his design which he later presented to the fair's directors for approval.
After investing $25,000 of his own capital and receiving multiple rejections from the Fair's orchestrators on his proposal, his design was finally approved on November 29, 1892, provided Ferris could finance the construction himself. Despite facing intense criticism from his peers, he accepted their offer and began feverishly working to complete the massive undertaking before the inauguration of the expo on May 1, 1893. Though his predecessor in World's Fair architecture, Gustave Eiffel, had received two years to complete his famous tower and a large subsidy from the French government in order to do so, Ferris had neither time nor money on his side. Determined to see the project through to its successful completion, Ferris utilized his personal credit and money from various investors to forge the 266-foot tall, 4,100-ton steel structure, complete with 36 cars which could hold up to 2,160 passengers at a time. Upon completion on June 21, 1893, the wheel's construction had set Ferris back over $350,000. Though the wheel was finished seven weeks after the fair's opening, it immediately proved the most popular exhibit with fair-goers for the duration of the expo. Over the course of 19 weeks, the wheel entertained almost 1.5 million riders, and at 50 cents a ride, the wheel was able to net $726,500 -- double the capital that it took to create the structure.
Despite the wheel's success, when the fair closed, its directors laid claim to its profits, stating that Ferris was not entitled to the revenue that was generated at the Expo. Ferris spent the next five years attempting to tear himself from the grips of debt, tied up in litigation with the fair's administrators, while simultaneously fending off patent lawsuits from other endeavoring engineers, claiming that Ferris had infringed upon their inventions to create his great wheel. Soon the financial strain became too overwhelming, and after having to close down all of his prior businesses, Ferris was finally forced to declared bankruptcy. The inherent stress caused by the loss of his wealth and status also led to the failure of his marriage; his wife left the childless union, and, soon-after, Ferris died of typhoid fever at the age of 37, penniless and alone, his ashes unclaimed.
Ferris's creation sat, gathering debt, for several years after the fair until it was unceremoniously dismantled and sold for $1,800 to a Chicago amusement company. In 1904, after being removed to St. Louis and considered a purposeless eye sore by the town's inhabitants, it was set upon by 300 pounds of dynamite to what the Chicago Tribune referred to as an "ignominious end," ultimately destroying what was left of the tangible legacy of George Ferris.
While Ferris sought to carry out his dream of constructing the great wheel, he was labeled "utterly mad" and came to be known as "the man with wheels in his head." It is nothing short of poetic that he should then share the celebration of his life and accomplishments with such a sordid holiday. Though his original creation lie in ruins, his contribution to the world and this day is a small reminder that taking a risk to follow your heart is the most crucial element of human existence.