The Big Eli®
W.E. Sullivan’s destiny was forged
forever by his encounter with the Great Ferris Wheel of the 1893
William's visit to the Columbian Exposition in 1893 not only
changed his life but would forever alter the amusement business.
Some years later, he penned an account of his actions while at the
“I went to the Wheel and inquired of the ticket seller if they
allowed visitors to examine the mechanism”, Sullivan wrote. “As
well as I recollect, his answer was that if I bought a ticket, I
could go in and examine it all I wanted. Buying the ticket, I went
into the enclosure, went around to the man operating the levers,
told him I would like to examine the entire machine as much as
possible. He very kindly consented to let me examine it and I
stayed with him probably an hour or more. I examined the engines,
the driving mechanism of the Wheel in fact, examined the entire
structure all I could from that point. Then I got in line with
the passengers and entered a car, and while riding around the
Wheel I examined it all I could through the windows of the car.”
He returned to his home in Roodhouse, Illinois, and told his wife,
“I have discovered the machine I want to design and build - a
portable Ferris Wheel.” Noticing his wife was smiling, he added,
“Well, don't you think I can build it?” “Sure, you can build
it,” she replied. “You have built most anything mechanically you
have set your mind to, but when you get it built, what are you
going to do with it?”
By 1897, Sullivan had moved his family to Jacksonville, Illinois,
and traveled for a St. Louis hardware firm, all the while
continuing his plans to create a portable Wheel.
He tried to get the parts for his Wheel built by the Jacksonville
(later Illinois Steel) Bridge Company, but the management did not
believe his ideas would work. They did agree to rent the plant
and equipment to Sullivan for 15 cents an hour. With no other
income available, the Sullivan's were eventually forced to
mortgage their home to finance the project, against the persistent
advice of Mrs. Sullivan’s parents.
Machinist James H. Clements became interested in the project in
1899 and bought a one-third interest in it for one hundred and
In early 1899 Sullivan began drawings for his Wheel. These
drawings led to the making of patterns in Crawford’s Mill and the
pouring of castings at the A.W. Bambrook Foundry.
On March 23, 1900, he secured the contract with the Jacksonville
Bridge Company and the actual construction began April 14. The
work progressed until May 12 when it was completed and erected in
the company’s yard.
The finished Big Eli® Wheel was
forty five feet high and had twelve phaeton-type buggy seats
for passengers. It was held together by five hundred and twenty
one bolts and required six men a full day to erect it. The Wheel
was powered by a one-cylinder Davis gasoline engine. The twelve
seats installed on this first Wheel were actually modified buggy
seats purchased from the Jacksonville firm of Hall Brothers.
He obtained a permit from the City of Jacksonville, and paid a
small fee to set up his Wheel and operate it in town.
Once the Wheel had been successfully tested, it was dismantled,
packed onto transfer wagons, hauled three-quarters of a mile to
Central Park, and set up again. The Wheel was erected on the east
side of the park between the curbstone and the south sidewalk.
He premiered his creation on May 23, 1900. With a charge of five
cents per ride, it grossed five dollars and fifty six cents that
day, a very successful debut in a time when a dollar was a good
day’s pay. He wrote of it in his diary, but never explained where
that sixth cent came from. Speculation has suggested a child with
only a single penny wanted a ride and Sullivan gave it to him for
He continued to operate the Wheel on afternoons and evenings when
the weather was suitable until the latter part of June.
An important milestone was accomplished when Sullivan and Clements
took their Wheel out of town for the first time. They set up the
Wheel in the middle of a dirt street in Beardstown, Illinois, and
ran it for a week during the Fourth of July celebration.
During their stay, they camped in a tent pitched right next to the
Wheel. Due to the rough element
Beardstown in those days, they dug a hole in the road under their
tent, placed pallets over the hole, and at night hid in it the
money earned during the day. One of them would stand guard
outside while the other dropped coins into the hole. When anyone
came along, the man outside would whistle the tune “Annie Rooney”
and the other stopped clinking coins into the hole until the coast
After returning home, he did not immediately tell his wife about
his success. He dumped the take out on the kitchen table and it
totaled eighty three dollars. Both he and his wife cried,
realizing they had finally proved the Wheel a successful venture.
The Wheel was moved from town to town in railroad boxcars and
transported to the operation site by horse-drawn hay racks or flat
top wagons. It proved its mobility as it appeared at street fairs
in Illinois, Missouri, and Indiana throughout the summer, ending
its first run at the Free Street Fair in Veedersburg, Indiana.
At the close of the first season, Clements bought Sullivan’s
interest in the Wheel. Sullivan returned to Roodhouse and the
following winter months were spent upgrading the design.
In April, 1901, Sullivan was struck down with a severe case of
inflammatory rheumatism which kept him bedridden and motionless
for three months. Clements continued to operate the Wheel and
Sullivan’s family lived off its percentage of the take. A
recovery looked improbable until he contacted an osteopathic
physician, who was able to set him on the road to recovery within
An improved model was assembled in the fall of 1901 and opened for
business on October 15 in Galesburg, Illinois, the birthplace of
George Ferris. This Wheel greatly improved on the original
design: Two hundred bolts had been eliminated, as had five hundred
pieces of steel, one thousand and ninety six rivets, and the
drilling of two thousand eight hundred and two holes. The seats
had been reworked. The Wheel was forty feet high and was driven
with a gear. The public reaction to this system was unfavorable
and Sullivan did not experiment further with a gear drive. At the
close of this second season, Sullivan sold his interest in the
Wheel to Clements.
The 1900-1905 were the “testing and improvement” periods. This
also marked a serious legal challenge to Sullivan’s creation
mounted by Troy, Pennsylvania manufacturer J.G. Conderman. A Wheel
designed and constructed by Conderman was erected in 1899, but due
to faulty construction had to be reworked the following year. He
later received a U.S. patent and he instituted infringement
proceeding against Sullivan, Clements, and other Wheel builders.
The courts ruled in 1904 that the Wheel itself could not be
patented and dismissed the suits. The last Conderman Wheel was
built in 1905.
The first three Wheels were built in different shops, and at each
Sullivan tried to persuade the men in charge to construct a Wheel
with completely interchangeable parts. There was just one workman
who agreed it could be done.
In 1905 Sullivan made working drawings of a Wheel with such
interchangeable parts, a novel idea at the time. He rented a shop
and secured tools which he operated with his Ferris Wheel engine.
Sullivan proved his theory by building the first Big Eli®
Wheel with interchangeable parts. There were no bolts
used in the structure of the Wheel. There had been five hundred
and twenty one in the first model. The new Wheel was socket and
pin connected, lighter than the earlier models, compact when down,
and was the realization of Sullivan’s dreams.
On July 22, 1905, this Wheel was erected and operated for the
first time. It grossed seventy four dollars and sixty cents the
first day. In twenty weeks of operation in the fall of 1905 and
fifteen weeks in the spring of 1906, it grossed eight thousand
three hundred twenty three dollars and fifty five cents. It was a
revelation to riding device owners and carnival men because it was
quick to erect, easy to operate, and economical in up keep.
Information provided by and used
with the permission of the Eli Bridge Company
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