The late George Ferris, a former Northsider, invented the Ferris wheel for the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Now, Pete and Jeff Geissler are bringing his name back into the limelight.
By Lucia Shen
Photo: Jeff and Pete Geissler, authors of a new book about the late George Ferris. Courtesy of Jeff Geissler
His name used to be on a plaque at 1318 Arch St., and most people walked past without realizing it.
George Ferris: Inventor of the Ferris wheel. Everyone knows his name, but no one knows who he really is, so local writer and Northsider Pete Geissler and his son, Jeff, decided to tell his story. Their book is called “The Rise and Fall of George Ferris: Love, Deceit, and The Wheel.”
Ferris lived and worked in Pittsburgh for about 12 years as an engineer; for three of those years, he lived at 1318 Arch St.—“Or 204 Arch St., depending on what source you look at,” Pete noted in a Zoom interview. The plaque used to sit at Ferris’ former residence until it was taken down to be refurbished.
“It’s been down for several years,” Pete said. “It’s in some warehouse somewhere.”
Pete himself is a longtime Northsider, living just a half a mile away from where Ferris once lived on Arch Street.
“I moved over here thinking I was gonna be here for five years,” Pete said. “Then, I was gonna buy my absolute dream house on a stream someplace else, probably north of here, so that I could sit on my porch and drop a line and catch trout for breakfast.”
He ended up staying for 35 years.
“Part of the reason it didn’t work out is because I’ve never seen my dad fish,” Jeff said with a laugh.
According to Pete, though, the draw of the Northside is its convenience; the way you can walk to everything you need. Pete’s home, too, has become a meeting place for both his friends and book collaborators.
Jeff, on the other hand, is the “newbie” in the neighborhood, according to his father. He has been here for around seven years.
“Whenever I was looking to move in Pittsburgh, I wanted to move to a neighborhood that was fun and happening, plus a place that was somewhat close to my dad here,” Jeff said. “I love it. I absolutely love it in this neighborhood.”
Jeff was actually the one who came up with the idea for the book about Ferris.
“I kept on coming across—I think it was on Facebook, but I started following ‘History of Pittsburgh,’ or the ‘Weird History of Pittsburgh,’ and these posts kept on popping up that were like, ‘Did you know that the Ferris wheel was invented in Pittsburgh, in the Northside?’” Jeff said.
“I just kept thinking it was an interesting idea that everybody’s been on a Ferris wheel, everybody knows what a Ferris wheel is, but nobody knows that the inventor of it lived here in the Northside.”
Pete, a former professor of professional writing at Carnegie Mellon and Duquesne Universities, is now a freelance writer and founder of his own publishing company, The Expressive Press. He’s always looking for his next book idea, so when Jeff pitched the George Ferris story, it became the father-son duo’s new project. Both of them ended up going out into the Northside neighborhood to see if anyone knew about the man.
“I actually went over to where his plaque was supposed to be, and it wasn’t, but I asked a couple of women there, who I think were waiting for the bus: ‘Do you know anything about the Ferris wheel and George Ferris?’” Pete recounted.
“One of them said, ‘Oh, I hate that wheel! It scares me half to death,’ and I said, ‘You know it was invented right here where you’re standing?’ They said, ‘…I had no idea.’”
On one occasion, Pete asked people at the bank.
“I got all these blank stares, so I started telling people in line about George Ferris, and they were all interested to know that he used to live here.”
With that, the writing and research for the book began. It was a quarantine project, with Jeff finding the book’s images, and Pete writing the words. As Jeff said, pointing to his father, “He’s words. I’m pictures.”
The book itself is written from a first-person perspective, as if the reader had happened upon a diary of Ferris himself. It begins with a personal note, written by Pete, from the perspective of Ferris:
“My name is George Washington Gale Ferris Junior, and I am credited worldwide with inventing the Ferris wheel. Some would argue that I didn’t, that I merely refined the idea of a vertical wheel that carried people. If so, I am an innovator, not an inventor. I prefer to be called an inventor, and this is my story told in my own words.”
Ferris himself invented the Ferris wheel partially out of spite for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Daniel Burnham, a very prominent architect at the time, was in charge of managing the construction and design of the exposition. In late 1890, he addressed a room of the nation’s top engineers and architects, including George Ferris, over lunch. They were the main players behind the construction of the Expo, and Burnham called for a structure within it to rival the Eiffel Tower. “Make no little plans,” he said.
Burnham had criticized the engineers in the room for not dreaming big enough for this project. According to Pete, it was this that spurred Ferris on to create The Wheel. Burnham had thrown down the gauntlet, and a 264-foot feat of engineering emerged as a symbol of the wildly successful exposition. Ferris wheels began popping up all over the world after their debut at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Despite this, Ferris was not a rich man when he died. He never applied for a patent for the Ferris wheel, so for every wheel built after the one he debuted at the expo, he earned no money.
“George Ferris is anonymous, and yet he’s the most recognizable engineering name in the world,” Pete said.
“I mean, you can talk about Tom Edison, and you can talk about George Westinghouse, and you can talk about Henry Ford, but everyone knows about Ferris…they [just] don’t know what he did. They don’t know what a fantastic engineer and fantastic life he had. We corrected that in about 107 pages.”