Above: An unusual view of the London Eye from the southern end of Albert Embankment. It looks as though the enormous wheel is about to come rolling down the street.
The London Eye – often also called the Millennium Wheel – is one of the great success stories in London of recent years. It was erected as a celebration of the coming of the recent millennium and it was intended to be a temporary structure. Londoners have so taken it to their hearts that the licence for it to stand beside the Thames was extended from the original five years and it will now be a permanent attraction in the capital.
Erecting the vast wheel did not go entirely to plan. Sections of the wheel were brought up the Thames on barges and bolted together to form the wheel structure – mounted horizontally – at the site of construction. The next task was to pull the wheel into a vertical position and mount it on a massive central bearing, so that it could rotate. The date for pulling the wheel from horizontal to vertical was 20 October 1999. Vast crowds gathered on Westminster Bridge and Victoria Embankment to witness the lifting work which was scheduled to take several hours during that day. Some time around mid-morning, when the wheel was at about 30 degrees to the horizontal, there was a loud bang when some of the steel supporting cables snapped. Work had to stop and it was a few weeks later that the wheel was finally mounted into its vertical position.
Above: The position of the wheel when it was being hauled up at the moment when the cables snapped.
The BBC had planned for a camera-man to set up a video camera on the north side of Westminster Bridge (almost opposite Big Ben). That camera was set in a fixed position to relay images of the wheel being lifted throughout the day. The idea had been to take the day’s pictures and edit them into a time-lapse sequence to be shown later that evening. Once set up, the camera-man had nothing to do other than stay with his equipment so that nobody touched the settings. When the lift failed, he was left standing there wondering if the lift would proceed and so, while waiting for what would happen next, he was chatting to the crowds of Londoners and tourists who wanted to know what was going on. I was taking pictures that day and at one point while walking around I was standing near him. I heard him say that the wheel was being funded by British Airways, which was true. He was having great fun inventing stories that, because the wheel was funded by an airline, there would be First Class and Economy Class capsules for the visitors to travel on. Each time he told the story he was elaborating on the basic theme to a growing audience. It was all great fun.
Some weeks later the huge wheel was eventually hauled into a vertical position. The wheel does not rotate like a bicycle wheel – held on a central hub. There is a central hub, to steady the mechanism, but the weight of the wheel is taken by large rubber wheels – which are actually lorry tyres – on which it rests. It rotates on the bearings of those smaller rubber wheels which also provide the driving mechanism. The wheel completes one revolution about every 30 minutes.
The whole idea was the brain-child of Marks Bardfield Architects – a man and wife duo of Julia Barfield and David Marks. The vast structure – 443 feet (135 m) in height – with a wheel of 394 feet (120 m) in diameter has 32 glass capsules each holding 25 passengers. It was officially opened on 31 December 1999 but it did not open to the paying public until 9 March 2000 because of a capsule clutch problem. It has become one of the iconic structures of London – following the trend set by Tower Bridge well over 100 years earlier.