How To “Out-Eiffel” Eiffel

All info and quotations came from Erik Larson's Devil in the White City. Guys, this is going to be a good one today.

In 1889, Paris held a World's Exposition that was so awesome it made Jay Gatsby's parties look like small-town sewing circles. For that Exposition, Gustave Eiffel designed and built the Eiffel Tower which was, for a while thereafter, the tallest structure on earth.

So in 1890 when the US decided to hold the next World's Exposition and Chicago was elected the city to host it, everyone started panicking about how they could possibly invent a grander structure than the Eiffel Tower. The goal quickly adopted a motto: "To out-Eiffel Eiffel." But the months rolled on and no one had yet thought of any cunning plan, so they advertised a nation-wide competition. The board would meet regularly to discuss design ideas that had been entered in the competition, and whoever won would get to build their structure on the fairgrounds and would probably make a freaking fortune.

They got some brilliantly stupid ideas:

1.) "J.B. McComber, representing the Chicago-Tower Spiral-Spring Ascension and Toboggan transportation Company [let's pause and soak up that company name], proposed a tower . . . nearly nine times the height of the Eiffel Tower, with a base one thousand feel in diameter . . . Elevated rails would lead from the top of the tower all the way to New York, Boston, Baltimore, and other cities. Visitors ready to conclude their visit to the fair and daring enough to ride elevators to the top would then toboggan all the way back home" (156).

Let's think about this for a second. You come to Chicago, probably with a bunch of luggage. When you're ready to leave, you get your whole family and all your bags, go up 9,000 feet in the air, get on a TOBOGGAN and basically SLED YOUR WAY HOME, 700 miles to Baltimore, 800 miles to New York, or 1,000 miles to Boston. On a sled. The first twenty minutes you'd be like "WOOOOOOOO!" By hour 12, you'd be like, "wooooo . . .". By hour 49 you'd be like, "God, I'd love to stop, pee, get something to eat, have a sleep . . . oh wait, I'm on a sled hurtling thousands of feet over anything resembling a hotel."

2.) Another "proposal demanded even more courage from visitors. this inventor, who gave his initials as R.T.E., envisioned a tower four thousand feet tall from which he proposed to hang a two-thousand-foot cable of "best rubber." Attached at the bottom end of this cable would be a car seating two hundred people. The car and its passengers would be shoved off a platform and fall without restraint to the end of the cable, where the car would snap back upward and continue bouncing until it came to a stop. The engineer urged that as a precaution the ground "be covered with eight feet of feather bedding." (156-7).

So, it was basically a prototype for bungee jumping, but instead of with one person, he wanted to shove two hundred people off a platform together, locked in a deathbox with no mention of seat belts or internal padding for their protection. Firstly, if the jump was successful, they'd be dangling two thousand feet from the ground . . . and two thousand feet from their starting point. How on earth would you get the car back up there? If the fall went badly, however, they would fall TWO THOUSAND FEET TO THE GROUND, where apparently some mattresses on the ground would protect them from any harm. Think about a plane falling out of the sky. Would some MATTRESSES do anything to help that situation?

3.) "One visionary put forth a tower five hundred feet taller than the Eiffel Tower but made entirely of logs, with a cabin at the top for shelter and refreshment. The cabin was to be a log cabin." (179).

Yeah, that's classy. Firstly, it was structurally unlikely that they could build the Eiffel Tower out of logs. There is a reason it was made out of steel. That thing is freaking HUGE and needed to withstand the pressure of its own weight. Secondly, the whole reason why America was nervous about the Eiffel Tower was because it has "offered graphic proof that France had edged out the United States for dominance in the realm of iron and steel" (28). The whole point was to do something sophisticated and new. Not to restore frontier architecture to prominence.

Finally, a proposal came in that some people found monstrously dangerous, but some other, more experienced architects overseeing the fair saw that it could work. They hemmed and hawed over it for months, saying the first strong wind would blow it over, saying that no one would feel comfortable going inside it, since structurally some parts reminded people of that feeble new invention, the bicycle wheel. The young designer kept pushing and pushing, bringing in further experts, engineers, mathematicians, who all said the same thing: "Trust in the steel. It looks fragile, but it's stronger than you can imagine."

Eventually the board cracked and gave him the commission. The young designer's named was George W.G. Ferris, and Chicago was able to out-Eiffel Eiffel: they got the first Ferris Wheel.

I say they got the first Ferris Wheel, but we only know the puny fairground Ferris Wheels of today. What they actually got was closer to the London Eye. It stood over two hundred feet tall, with each car able to hold dozens. Hell, each car had a SANDWICH COUNTER in it. With every car loaded to capacity, 2,100 people could ride it at once. It took 20 minutes to make a full revolution. It rapidly became the biggest attraction of the fair, People even asked to get married on it. Ferris made thousands.

Despite the board's initial insistence that something awful would happen, there was only ever one incident. They had, thankfully, enclosed each car in strong glass, with iron grates over it, in order to keep any lunatics from trying to commit suicide by breaking through and jumping off. That was never attempted as such, but it was a very new experience for people and provoked in one man an unpredictable reaction:

"On one ride a latent terror of heights suddenly overwhelmed an otherwise peaceful man named Wherritt. He was fine until the car began to move. As it rose, he began to feel ill and nearly fainted. There was no way to signal the engineer below to stop the wheel" (322). He began pacing nervously, and eventually was staggering around in a blind panic, terrifying the other passengers. "He began throwing himself at the walls of the car with such power that he managed to bend some of the protective iron" (322). A bunch of men in the car attempted to tackle and subdue him, but he was full of adrenaline strength and shook them all off.

"As the car entered its descent, Wherritt became calmer and laughed and sobbed with relief–until he realized the wheel was not going to stop. It always made two full revolutions. Wherritt again went wild" (322). Then the conductor and other passengers began panicking. What could they possibly do to subdue this man? The car was strong, but he'd bent iron. They wouldn't be able to contain him for a second trip.

Finally one woman went, "Oh, for the love of–" and whipped off her skirt. "To the astonishment of all aboard, she slipped the skirt off and threw it over Wherritt's head, then held it in place while murmuring gentle assurances. The effect was immediate. Wherritt became "as quiet as an ostrich." A woman disrobing in public, a man with a skirt over his head–the marvels of the fair seemed endless" (322).

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One Response to How To “Out-Eiffel” Eiffel

  1. Anonymous says:

    My favourite line from this post? ‘As quiet as an ostrich’. Because, y’know, that’s what springs to mind when you see a man sobbing gently under a layer of petticoat.


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