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A TOUR of London these days is not complete without a visit to the London Eye situated on the South Bank of the River Thames close to Waterloo Station.

The project (formerly known as the Millennium Wheel) stands in Jubilee Gardens. Its thirty-two capsules dangle over the river and provide magnificent views over London.

Its creators were husband and wife architects, David Marks and Julia Barfield. In the early 1990s they submitted designs for an observation wheel to a competition organised to determine a possible landmark to commemorate the millennium.

Although the competition was later abandoned British Airways showed an interest in the design and eventually became a partner in its realisation.

(For details of the pictures on this page please see below, or click here.)

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It would turn out to be the largest observation wheel and the only cantilevered structure of its kind in the world. It also involved over one thousand seven-hundred people, spread over five countries, in its construction. One of the world's tallest floating cranes was required to lift the four sections of the rim on to eight temporary pontoons on the Thames.

Each passenger capsule had to be designed to comply with the maximum width allowed on the French roads.

The wheel sections were floated up the Thames on barges, an operation that had to be co-ordinated with the River Thames tides. The calculated clearance under Southwark Bridge, for instance, would be at the most only forty centimetres.
The wheel was assembled horizontally on the pontoons. Once the wheel was complete it was raised into its upright position by cranes. The lifting process was, however, hampered by cable failures and other technical problems. The wheel was initially lifted at about a rate of one degree every half hour until it reached sixty-five degrees, where it remained for a week until the engineers had completed preparations for the second part of the lift.

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The Eye was officially opened by British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, on December 31, 1999, although it was not opened to the public until March 2000.

Since its opening the Eye, sponsored by British Airways and operated by Tussauds Group, has become a major landmark and tourist attraction. It enjoyed a warmer reception from the British public than London's other significant Millennium project, the Dome.

By July 2002 over eight million people had paid to 'travel' on the Eye by July 2002. Although the attraction only had planning permission for five years the Lambeth Council has since agreed make the permission permanent.

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The wheel carries thirty-two sealed, air conditioned, passenger capsules attached to its external circumference. It rotates slowly (at a rate of about one mph) so that a complete revolution takes about 30 minutes to complete. The wheel does not usually stop to take on passengers; its rotation is so slow that passengers can easily walk on and off the moving capsules at ground level. It is, however, stopped when needed to allow disabled or elderly passengers time to alight safely.

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Ferris wheels are often confused with 'observation wheels', of which the London Eye is an example. Although they are appear similar at first glance, they differ in a number of important respects, the most important being that the passenger cars in the latter are not suspended from the circumference of the wheel but are actually mounted on its exterior. Observation wheels, as a result, are technically more complex than Ferris wheels.

The original 1893 Ferris wheel built by was 75m high. Although presently listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the tallest observation wheel in the world at 135 metres, the London Eye is unlikely to in that position for much longer. There are plans to build a 170m wheel on the Las Vegas Strip and a 200m wheel in Shanghai.

The compression foundation built below the main supports, i.e. the A-frame legs required 2,200 tonnes of concrete. Its forty-four concrete piles were each sunk to a depth of 33 metres. The tension foundation which supports the backstay cables required 1,200 tonnes of concrete.

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London Eye can carry eight-hundred passengers at a time in its thirty-two pods. A single revolution of the wheel (and the duration of a 'ride') takes approximately thirty minutes and offers extensive views over the Capital: westwards - looking down on the nearby Houses of Parliament, north - across to Buckingham Palace, eastwards - to Canary Wharf. On a really clear day Windsor Castle can be seen in the distance, some 25 miles away.

The London 'Economist' said, "It is an enjoyable jaunt, though the absence of running commentary is regrettable. A word of warning: with very little fending off of direct sunlight, the capsules can get pretty warm, so wear removable layers and bring sunglasses (along with binoculars and, of course, a camera). The crowds have died down a bit, but it is still wise to book ahead. The earliest “flights” are the least crowded, and capsules are available for corporate or private hire."

And a final comment from the 'official' London Eye website: "Of all the remarkable facts about the London Eye, perhaps the most astonishing is that it was ever built at all."

The pictures on this page from the top:

1) The London Eye from the Embankment on the opposite bank of the Thames. Note the 'off-set' A-frame legs which form the main support for the wheel and the backstay cables (better seen in the next picture) extending backwards behind them from the central spindle. Behind the Eye is County Hall built in 1933, former headquarters of the London County Council.

2) Jubilee Park on the South Bank. The Houses of Parliament visible in the background.

3) Horse Guards Parade, Whitehall with the London Eye the background.

4) One of the Salvado Dali sculptures in the Dali Universal Exhibition on the South Bank, close to the London Eye.

5) The Eye; County Hall is on the right of the picture.

6) Houses of Parliament from the London Eye. The tower contains the thirteen-ton bell known as 'Big Ben'. Westminster Abbey can be seen in the background.

Please click here to view the next page of 'London Eye'!

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