For more than 100 years, every Ferris wheel on the planet was roughly the same size and height as the 1893 original. But in 2000, something changed: London debuted the London Eye, an enormous juggernaut of a tourist trap. Its success sparked a global race to build higher and faster wheels in the sky—and it's only heating up. So who's winning?
The original Ferris Wheel in Chicago
For 100 years after it debuted at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893, the Ferris wheel was nothing more than a folly on the urban landscape. This feat of engineering intended to "out-Eiffel Eiffel" but was still perceived as a carnival ride, relegated to amusement parks, shopping malls and smarmy boardwalks thick with taffy and funnel cake. In 1999, the world's tallest Ferris wheel rotated a mere 377 feet above Tokyo, which was only a slight innovation: the original had reached 263 feet a century before.
The London Eye towers over the Thames
Then the London Eye came along in 2000. At 443 feet, it rather triumphantly claimed the title of tallest in the world. It accommodated 800 passengers at a time, who rode in 32 cushy capsules high above the Thames, not at some theme park. The London Eye was a critical and cultural success. Suddenly, the now-named "observation wheel" had been transformed into a civic icon, a symbol of urban progress—that just happened to turn a hefty profit. And cities around the world wanted their own little wheels of fortune.