In 1889, George Washington built the first Ferris Wheel for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It was a pioneering move by Washington – or to give him his full name George Washington Gale Ferris Jr – which spun a chain of imitators around the world in what might be called urban icon wars. The project was partly a response to the construction of the much taller Eiffel Tower on the Champ de Mars in Paris. It generated huge publicity for the city, which Chicago eyed enviously.
The Chicago wheel had hardly been finished before London started thinking of an even bigger one. The resulting Gigantic Wheel was eventually built in Earls Court and rose to the amazing height of 308 feet – comfortably taller than the 264 feet of the Chicago wheel. A result!
The Gigantic Wheel was able to carry an impressive 1,200 passengers in its 40 carriages and by the time it stopped turning in 1906 it had been ridden by over 2.5 million people. It was constructed by engineers who went on to build similar wheels around the world. The Earls Court giant has now passed out of the city’s memory – who needs it when we have the London Eye! – and so, sadly, has the extraordinary event of which it was a part.
The wheel was a feature of the Empire of India Exhibition, which opened in Earls Court in 1895. This was the brainchild of Imre Kiralfy, a brilliant Hungarian entrepreneur who converted the 24-acre site into a Mughal style extravaganza, in which Indian scenery was reproduced, reflecting the country’s past and present history. Its overall theme, that “modern India was the product of British patience and genius” ,would not ring many bells in today’s counter-imperialist age. But it had the support of the Indian government, which gave £10,000 to it, plus four Maharajas and Rajas as patrons.
During the 164 days the exhibition was open it attracted almost 5.6 million visitors. This compares with 6.5 million for the Millennium Dome in 2000, which was open for a full year at a time when London’s population was over double what it had been in the 1880s.
As part of the exhibition complex, Kiralfy also built the huge Empress Theatre (or Empress Hall as it was later known by) as a tribute to Queen Victoria, the Empress of India. It was a unique theatre in that it could hold over 5,000 people all seated on the same level, giving an uninterrupted view of the stage from any angle.
Imre Kiralfy became a British citizen in 1901. He died on 27 April 27, 1919 aged 74 in Brighton. He is buried in the family mausoleum in Green-Wood Cemetery, New York, but there is also a family mausoleum at Kensal Green Cemetery.
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