What about the Ferris wheel?

View from a passenger car of the main axle of the first Ferris wheel, 1893.

The last time you rode a Ferris wheel you likely did not think about the innovations that went into building the first Ferris wheel.  At a time when technology and speed have become so integral to our daily lives it is easy to take for granted the true mastery and innovation required to achieve feats such as this.

When the iconic ride was designed and constructed for the Columbian Exposition of 1893 held in Chicago, IL, it was 264 feet tall (taller than the Eiffel Tower) and in the over 100 years since, only eight Ferris wheel’s in the world have surpassed this height. The main axle alone was a single, hollow-forged, 45.5 foot-long steel member weighing over 71 tons. When I think of how little we recognize about something so familiar to us, I wonder what other innovations behind innovations we fail to see every day.

A few days ago I read an article in the Star Tribune about a new bridge in Hastings, MN. Two, 545 foot long free-standing tied arches comprise the main span of the bridge which was assembled at a staging area up-river from the construction site. Earlier this week the structure was rolled onto barges, floated down the Mississippi River to the construction site and raised into place in less than 72 hours. When the new bridge opens to traffic it will be the longest free-standing tied-arch bridge in North America!

Like the Ferris wheel, the bridge will become common and be taken for granted; reduced over time to nothing more than a fun fair ride or something nice looking that we can put on our city letterhead. Much of what we do as architects relies on innovations in material forms or applications, and even tests structural preconceptions but we need to be thinking about how to use these materials and methods to celebrate not only the building itself, but also what it took to build it. It is imperative that we recognize the importance of interdisciplinary respect and collaboration, and that we ensure when people encounter  “everyday” things like Ferris wheels, highway bridges or buildings they leave the experience thinking of more than just how “pretty” it looks.

The red-orange in the upper right part of the picture is the new bridge at the assembly site/staging area. South of that, adjacent to the existing Hwy 61 bridge (blue) is where the new bridge was raised into place.

New bridge span being rolled onto barges, five days ago.

New bridge being floated down the Mississippi River, 3 days ago.

New bridge being raised into place adjacent existing bridge, 3 days ago.

To watch a time laps video of the bridge being transported down river and raised into place visit: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQ5qVMS9Ly0

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