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  • Vienna’s Beloved Giant Wheel BY AWAKE! WRITER IN AUSTRIA
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    THE picturesque city of Vienna lies spread out in the foreground, and the hills of the Vienna woods rise in the distance. The stage is set so perfectly that you can almost hear the lilting strains of Strauss waltzes in the air. A young man has purposely chosen this setting, but now he struggles to calm his pounding heart as he proposes to his sweetheart. They are 200 feet [60 m] above the ground. How is that? He is not the first and certainly will not be the last to visit Vienna’s beloved Riesenrad, or giant wheel, on such a special occasion.

    The giant wheel, located in a large park in Vienna called the Prater, has been a cherished city landmark for over 100 years. ‘You only know Vienna if you have seen it from the giant wheel,’ proclaims the invitation posted at the attraction’s entrance. But its existence—longer than that of any other giant Ferris wheel in the world—has not been without difficulties. How did this steel colossus come to be? How did it survive the storms of time?

    The First Ferris Wheel

    To trace the history of the giant wheel, we must go back to the 19th century and the Industrial Revolution. During that time steel became the industrial building material of choice. Steel skeletons of daring design sprang up in various world capitals—the steel-and-glass Crystal

    Palace in London, the Palm House in Vienna, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. However, the city most notable for this form of architecture was Chicago, and it was there, on the occasion of the 1893 World’s Fair, that American engineer George Ferris built the first giant wheel.

    Ferris’ sensational wheel was 250 feet [76 m] in diameter and bore 36 cars, each able to carry 40 passengers aloft for a magnificent 20-minute view of Chicago and its surroundings. For many visitors to the fair, it was by far the most memorable attraction. But Chicago’s Ferris wheel eventually lost its novelty, and after being moved twice, it was demolished in 1906 for scrap. Nevertheless, the idea of a giant wheel had already begun to fire imaginations elsewhere.

    The Giant Wheel Comes to Vienna

    Enthusiasm about Chicago’s giant wheel apparently ran high in the mind of engineer and retired British naval officer Walter Basset. In 1894 he initiated design on a great wheel to be erected in Earl’s Court in London, and he later built other wheels in Blackpool, England, and in Paris. Meanwhile, Viennese entertainment

    entrepreneur Gabor Steiner had been seeking new attractions for Vienna. One day a representative of Walter Basset suggested to Steiner that they become partners in erecting a giant wheel in Vienna. The men quickly came to terms, and a suitable site for the new sensation from England was found. But what about obtaining a building permit?

    When Steiner submitted his construction plans to the city, an official looked at the plans, looked back at Steiner, and looked again at the plans. He then shook his head and asked: “Do you really think, Mr. Director, that you can find someone who will permit you to build this monster and accept responsibility for it?” Steiner pleaded: “But wheels like this exist in London and Blackpool, and they function without any problems!” The official refused to be convinced. “The English can do as they like,” he replied, “but I’m not going to risk my hide.” Undaunted, Steiner persevered and finally received permission to build.

    The erection of the gigantic steel structure was sensational in itself. Curious onlookers gathered daily at the construction site to exchange observations about its progress. After only eight months, it was finished. On June 21, 1897, the last blows of the hammer were delivered by Lady Horace Rumbold, wife of the English ambassador to the Viennese Court. A few days later, the giant wheel went into operation. As Steiner later recalled: “Everyone was delighted, and the ticket offices were stormed.”

    The Giant Wheel’s Ups and Downs

    Archduke Francis Ferdinand, heir apparent to the Austro-Hungarian crown, enjoyed surveying the empire’s capital from atop the giant wheel. His assassination in June 1914—the prelude to World War I—also affected the giant wheel. Not only was it robbed of its famous guest but it was also closed to the public when it became a military lookout. The giant wheel resumed operation in May 1915. The country was by then suffering an iron shortage, however, and standing there for all to see was the giant wheel, just waiting to be dismantled! The wheel was sold in 1919 to a Prague merchant, who was to dismantle it within three months. But dismantling the complicated structure would have been more expensive than the iron was worth. So the already famous landmark narrowly escaped a ‘death sentence’ and continued to entertain an appreciative public.

    The war and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy brought serious changes to Vienna. In the 1930’s, the economy worsened, and the political situation became precarious. Steiner, once a celebrated man, had to flee for his life because of his Jewish descent. Still, in 1939 and 1940, the giant wheel saw record numbers of riders. World War II, which had broken out in the meantime, seemed to drive people into a pleasure-seeking frenzy. But in September 1944, alarming news spread through the city—the giant wheel was on fire! A short circuit on the neighboring roller coaster started a fire that spread to the giant wheel, destroying six of its cars. But the worst was yet to come.

    In April 1945, during the waning days of World War II, the wheel again caught fire. This time all 30 cars were consumed along with the control facilities. The only thing that remained was the wheel’s burned-out iron frame. But even this did not mark the end of the wheel. While blocks of houses lay in ruins after the war, the giant wheel, although only a steel skeleton, stood defiant. Once again it was found that dismantling it would be too expensive. Was there an alternative?

    Yes! It was once again restored, although for safety reasons only every second car was replaced. From May 1947 until today, it has continued making its rounds, slowly taking its delighted passengers up and down. Through films such as The Third Man, with its unforgettable theme music played on the zither, the giant wheel has also become recognizable far beyond Vienna.

    Vienna’s giant wheel has survived, while those originally erected in Chicago, London, Blackpool, and Paris have all become scrap iron. It remains a witness to the postwar generation’s strong will to rebuild and has become a symbol of Vienna. Should you ever visit Vienna, you will surely want to take a ride on the giant wheel. While there, perhaps you will also catch sight of an older man telling his grandchildren how, high atop the giant wheel, he tried to quiet his pounding heart as Grandma agreed to marry him.

    [Box/Picture on page 19]

    THE RIESENRAD (GIANT WHEEL)

    Built: 1897

    Height: 212 feet

    Wheel diameter: 200 feet

    Weight of wheel: 245 tons

    Weight of entire iron construction: 430 tons

    Speed: 1.7 miles per hour [2.7 kmh]

    [Credit Line]

    Source: The Vienna Giant Ferris Wheel, by Helmut Jahn and Peter Petritsch, 1989, page 39

    [Picture on page 21]

    A view of the northeastern skyline of Vienna from the giant wheel

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