“Never hesitate to go far away, beyond all seas, all frontiers, all countries, all beliefs.”Amin Maalouf, Leo Africanus
The Mesopotamians invented the wheel 5,500 years ago. Three centuries later, the Greeks and Chinese put them on axels. Movement: Chariots, carriages, the first internal combustion engine. Trains, cars, planes, buses, motorbikes. So many destinations.
But this is a story about a wheel, an engine, and going nowhere. Going round and round, stopping, looking around, going still. A story and journey for innocents – romantics, dreamers, and children – to the top of the world, then back to the point of departure.
In 1891, an American engineer, George Ferris, sketched an idea on a napkin at a banquet: a wheel, 76.2 meters high, that would spin, operated by two 1000 horsepower reversible engines. For 50 cents per person, 2,160 could ride for twenty minutes to the top … and see Chicago.
It was as close to the sky, to flying as anyone could get then. The farthest journey one could take away from the ground. It was a full decade before the Wright brothers would fly a plane. It was unimaginable, till someone did: an engine, a wheel. In 1893, the Ferris Wheel was inaugurated at the Chicago World Fair: it took a 1.5 million people on the greatest trip of their lives … nowhere.
There is no purpose to the Ferris Wheel. It is a costly, complex feat of mechanical engineering built on Newton’s Second Law, that involves calibrating gravity, mass, rotation rate, centripetal force. The Chicago Wheel cost the equivalent of 8,223,266 dollars. To ride it would have cost a family half a week’s salary.
Yet people did, and still do, everywhere. From Vienna to Yokohama, Tianjin, London, Las Vegas, Coney Island. At fairs that pop up, impromptu, on the wayside of highways. On piers in seaside towns, barely more than a few shacks, an ice cream cart.
My mother took us on our first ride on a Ferris Wheel. Beirut, early nineties: cotton candy clouds, war-torn city. The fighting had stopped. People were fleeing now for other reasons: money, disillusion, uncertainty, scars that wouldn’t heal. Riding cars, buses, planes away as fast as they could turn those wheels. My mother, that afternoon, took us on another journey.
Look down, see the rubble, the cavities where once there were balconies, on which people planted rosemary and smoked Gitanes with their coffee. Look up, see the elephant cloud! Yes, it could be a bear. Why not? It can be what you want. Not everything needs a purpose. We do not always have to run.
We went round and round that afternoon, on the wheel, to the sky and down, then drove home. Since then, I’ve gone far, and back, and far again, and in circles, and nowhere. And, I am proud to say, ridden every Ferris Wheel I have encountered.
To the reader:
Have you ever ridden a Ferris Wheel?