Since 1999, the London Eye (also known as the Millennium Wheel) has dotted the skyline of London and added its distinctive shape to the buildings that line the Thames River. To some its a tourist attraction, to others, it’s an eyesore. Regardless of one’s opinion on the Eye, it is an iconic part of the city and its history, though recent, is certainly as memorable as one of its “flights”.
The inspiration for the London Eye was the London Wheel. Located at Earl’s Court, a Ferris Wheel was built as part of the Empire of India Exhibition in 1895. It was in service for nearly twelve years and at a height of 308 feet with 40 cars that could each carry 40 people, it saw over 2.5 million passengers before it was finally demolished in 1907 following the Imperial Austrian Exhibition. And even though the Wheel had been gone from the city for 92 years, some Londoners longed to see a similar attraction return.
The Eye has its origins beginning in 1993 with a competition to design a new landmark for London. Husband and wife David Marks and Julia Barfield submitted their idea for a wheel as an homage to the one from the beginning of the previous century. The pair noted that, at the time, London lacked many observation points to view the skyline from all angles and designed a Ferris Wheel with glass pods to provide a 360-degree views of the city. Not a traditional Ferris Wheel, Marks and Barfield (along with Frank Anatole, Nic Bailey, Steve Chilton, Malcolm Cook, and Mark Sparrowhawk) designed what’s called a cantilevered observation wheel where only one side is fixed to the ground with projected beam around which the wheel rotates.
Ultimately, no entry into the competition was chosen, but the couple pressed on and eventually found partners willing to make the wheel a reality. British Airways funded the building that was carried out by construction firm Mace. Planning and building consent was granted for the Eye on the Thames in South Bank. Construction began in 1999 and pieces of the Eye were floated up the river to the site were they were assembled. Once the pieces were connected, the wheel was raised 2 degrees and hour until it reached 65 degrees, then left in that position for a week until it was raised the remainder of the way. Prime Minister Tony Blair opened the London Eye on 31 December 1999, but due to technical problems, no passengers were admitted to ride until 9 March 2000.
The finished product was 443 feet tall and 394 feet in diameter. Its thirty-two capsules (one for each London borough) permit passengers to view the city for twenty-five miles in any direction from its highest point. It offers the highest view of the city until the construction of the Shard was completed in 2013. Each of the capsules can hold twenty-five people, though special private flights can also be reserved. The London Eye carries approximately 15,000 passengers a day in what are called “flights” due to British Airways’ former ownership of the attraction.
British Airways, along with the Marks Barfield family, sold their interest in 2006 to the Tussauds Group, who were then acquired by Merlin Entertainment in 2007. Coca-Cola later bought the naming rights in 2014. Its taken on iconic status ever since its construction and has been the centre of many interesting moments, including its magician David Blaine who stood atop a capsule for an entire thirty minute flight in 2003. In 2005, it was a feature location for the first episode of the revamped Doctor Who, in which the episode’s villain used it as a communications dish. In 2013, thirty of the capsules were turned into mini-night clubs to celebrate club culture. Ultimately, it stands first and foremost as a city landmark and one of the best places for visitors to experience a breathtaking view of London.