Fairground Wheels

Where would mankind be without the wheel? Could it be the most significant discovery of them all? The circle is certainly the most significant shape on the fairground. Not only are roundabouts circular in shape, they describe a circular motion as they travel around a fixed point. Many other fairground rides do this as well, whether they are circular in shape or not.

Vertical fairground-type wheels with bench, or bucket, seats date from antiquity, with examples being found in many cultures across the world. They have been on a long journey of evolution, but for our purposes it’s perhaps best to concentrate on a few basic types: Overboats, Over the tops and Ferris Wheels.


One of the very early amusement types and a smaller version of what was to become the Ferris Wheel. Devices of this type are very common all over the world, although they are know in the UK as “overboats”. Early motion was provided by attendants pushing on the revolving frame.

Overboats are quite common in paintings depicting early fairs. A well-known painting of Bartholomew fair from the 1700s shows a 4-carr overboat, each holding 2 adults, suspended from pairs of arms that are revolving around a horizontal shaft.

These rides eventually evolved so they could be hand-cranked rather than pushed, eventually by a chain and gear system similar to that found on a bicycle. By the end of the 19th century they were steam driven.

In the UK Overboat devices adhering to early design principles and construction methods are never seen these days, although there is one such device in preservation.

Over the tops

Another device similar in concept to the big wheel. Patented in the early 20th century and very common in photographs of the period.

Relied on a pair of “A” frames joined by an axle. A pair of long, parallel beams, attached to the axle and held with cross-braces with a “boat” attached between each end of the parallel beams.

Relied for motion on counterbalanced weights at opposite ends of the arms. Co-ordinated movement enabled the boat to swing “over the top”.

The ultimate white-knuckle ride of its day and not particularly safe. Later designs introduced a cage-like structure for the passengers to prevent them falling out.

Ferris Wheels

The Big Wheel, or Ferris Wheel, is the most iconic of fairground rides. A large vertical wheel with spokes and swinging gondolas it is a beacon for the fair, particularly at night.

The original Big Wheel was created for the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair by George Washington Gale Ferris. It was 250 feet in diameter and featured 36 cars (each accommodating 60 passengers), each of which were 26 feet long and 13 feet wide. This original “Ferris” wheel became a catalyst for giant wheel building and

British engineer Walter B.Bassett built four large wheels between 1894 and 1898. These were all over 200 feet diameter and were located at Earls Court (London), Blackpool, Paris and Vienna. The Vienna wheel (or Die Risenrad), built in 1896 to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the coronation of Emperor Franz Joseph, still operates today.

Also inspired by the Chicago Ferris Wheel, American engineer William Sullivan designed the first portable wheel in 1900. Devices of this type remain popular to this day and the technology remains essentially the same.

In 1905 the Eli Bridge company, headed by Sullivan, began mass producing wheels. The first big Eli Wheel was 45 feet high and was fitted with 12 cars. By the 1940s such devices were hugely popular at British fairs and Amusement Parks.

UK company, Hayes fabrication, made a large number of Eli Wheels under licence. The Butlin organisation purchased huge 16-cars versions, while the travelling fair preferred the 12-car variant.

Inspired by the London Eye giant wheels are very much in vogue in city centres and at larger UK fairs.