Who's who;A closer look;Discovery series;Discover fairs

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
George Ferris (1859-1896)

The eighth child of a Nevada farmer, George Ferris graduated as an engineer in 1881 and shortly after sketched his idea for for an "amusement wheel" on a scrap of paper at a Chicago restaurant. The first Ferris wheel, a power-driven vertical wheel with a steel frame and seats for passengers, appeared at the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. People were so impressed by the ride that they hailed it as an engineering feat comparable to the Eiffel Tower. It was hugely popular, and couples even asked if they could be married at the top of it.

Ferris died in 1896 at the age of 37. His ideas had not brought him fame and fortune as he had hoped, but possible bankruptcy and accusations that he had copied his idea from others instead. Since then, what the British call "the big wheel" has become a favourite ride in fairs and amusement parks around the world. The current tallest at 112 meters with a wheel diameter of 100 metres is at an amusement park in Osaka, Japan. However ,it will be eclipsed by the Millennium Wheel, being built in London, on the Thames near Westminster, as part of the Millennium celebrations. The wheel will be 137.16 metres high - almost twice the size of Ferris's original.

Barbara Buttrick

Known as "The Mighty Atom of the Ring", Barbara Buttrick was one of a small number of women who worked in fairground boxing booths, where members of the audience were challenged to go a set number of rounds with the resident boxers. They disappeared in the 1980s.

Buttrick began her career in 1949 by challenging women and giving three-round exhibition fights to show off her skills. By 1954 she had fought more than 1,000 exhibitions in English French and American fairgrounds. Although just under five feet tall, Buttrick was no pushover. Interviewed in 1998, she admitted breaking three noses, including that of her sparring partner ex-husband. "The bigger girls weren't so keen to come rushing in," she said. "I was small, but I was mean."

Joseph Merrick (1862-1890)

Joseph Merrick was disfigured from the age of five by a rare disorder that caused growths over much of his body. Eventually, his head grew to three feet in circumference and he was unable to show any facial expression or speak clearly.

In 1883, Merrick was billed as "The Elephant Man" in a freak show, a fairground attraction that featured people handicapped in unusual ways - bearded women, midgets and such like.

In the film The Elephant Man (1980), the show owner is depicted as uncaring and vindictive, but historians have pointed out that Merrick, like so many other so-called "freaks", was well treated by his boss, if for no other reason than that he represented a valuable asset. He died of accidental suffocation, aged 27.

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