Manufacturer(s): Eli Bridge, Lusse
Debut year: 1800s
First UK produced: not known
Last UK produced: not known
Total UK number: approx 90
Summary: A classic ride dating back to the beginning of fairs and experiments into riding devices. The Big Wheel is as its name suggests, a large spoked wheel with swinging gondolas that maintain a horizontal keel. Development has been in expansion and refinement, with a recent trend of travelling 'Giant Wheels' or erecting them as landmarks in cities.
The Big Wheel, as a ride type, has been a part of the fairground for as long as the fairground has existed. The idea of using a giant spoked device to propel passengers gently through a circle is an obvious attraction for the fairground engineer and the success of the ride from its very early experimental formats has meant that development tends to be in the realm of refinement and expansion rather than rugged evolution.
David Braithwaite's 'Fairground Architecture' shows various sketches of early Big Wheel devices with limited construction and propulsion methods, though by the end of the nineteenth Century the Big Wheel as we know it was taking its shape. Giant Wheel installations became an icon of World's Fairs and Exhibitions and the example at Earl's Court (London) erected in 1894 led the way in expressing opulence and engineering superiority.
Patenting around the Big Wheel design was fast and frenetic with American engineers at the forefront in pushing through upwards of 50 patents from around 1867. The key person however was George Washington Gale Ferris (whose name is attributed to the 'Ferris Wheel' - the proper name for a Big Wheel). Ferris grew up with a poor farming family and was said to have a strong interest in mechanical farming devices and wheels used to draw water from rivers. His academic and career path took him to become a practical expert in structural steel and its uses in building large bridges and turning devices. His first 'Ferris Wheel' project involved building an observation wheel for the Columbian Exposition in the early 1890s.
The race to build a more practical, transportable, Big Wheel was eventually won by William Sullivan as he founded the Eli Bridge Company in 1906. Sullivan had been active in various patent arguments, with a key case being between Will Conderman and Newton Johnson. Conderman went on to produce many of the early Big Wheels, including an example at Skegness Beach, but it was the Eli Bridge Big Wheel, with its simple design and robust drive mechanism that became the standard.
Eli Wheels began to venture onto the UK fairground scene, with larger 16-car examples taking places at various amusement parks. A small handful began to travel, but the large size was preventative of any practical benefits, and eventually these 16-car machines settled into the various Butlins camps throughout the UK. Through the 1950s and 1960s many of the camps had 2 of these wheels alongside each other, with another 'twin set' also evident at Blackpool Pleasure Beach. The Big Wheels at Blackpool are said to be the first examples of the Eli type in the UK with one being added in 1936 and a second being added 2 years later. These twin Big Wheels survived until the 1990s.
The popular Eli Wheel was the more manageable 12-car version. Large enough to provide a thrill for the rider and a beacon for the fair, but practical enough to build-up and pull-down with the required regularity of a travelling fair. Eli Big Wheels became an instant success, and the Lusse Brothers of Blackpool, American designers with good connections to the US manufacturing scene, began building versions for the UK market.
Popularity remained strong in the post-war years, and the company Hayes Fabrication kept up the production regime through the 1960s. By this decade all of the major fairs would feature a Big Wheel, and Nottingham Goose Fair already had its own 'double wheel' landmark at the top of the site (the Wheels belonging to the Williams and Weston families of North Wales).
For images of fairground rides visit our collections online