How the Cyr Wheel Works

History of Acrobatic Wheels

Like most great ideas, the Cyr wheel wasn't plucked out of thin air. Instead, it was an idea that had existed for nearly a century in various forms before Daniel Cyr gave the simple metal ring — also known as a mono wheel — its latest and greatest incarnation.

Acrobat and Cyr wheel performer Valérie Inertie has assembled a wonderful history of the wheel and its predecessors on her website.

Possibly the first modern performer to incorporate a mono wheel apparatus into her act was the innovative American dancer Doris Humphrey. Promotional photographs from a 1923 piece called "Scherzo Waltz" show Humphrey with one leg raised high while her right hand balances a large metal ring incredibly similar in dimensions to the Cyr wheel.

The next landmark happened in Germany in 1925, when a former railway worker named Otto Feick created the Rhönrad, also known as the German wheel. Feick claims the inspiration for the Rhönrad — which is made from two parallel metal rings and resembles a large hamster wheel — came from a childhood experience of being rolled down a hill in an iron-rimmed barrel.

The Rhönrad enjoyed a period of wild popularity between the two world wars. Feick sold tens of thousands of the double wheels in Germany and demonstrated his invention to appreciative crowds in London and New York City. The Rhönrad was taught in school gym classes and used to train pilots. For the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games, 120 Rhönrad athletes displayed their head-over-heels talents in the opening ceremonies [source: Inertie].

The first mass-produced mono wheel — the closest predecessor of the Cyr wheel — was invented in post-war East Germany by Adalbert von Rekowski in the early 1950s [source: Winkler]. Called the Einreifen, the single-wheel apparatus had straps for attaching your feet to the ring and a handlebar for gripping.

When Daniel Cyr began playing with mono wheel designs in the 1990s, he would have certainly known about the double-ringed German wheel, but probably not the Einreifen, which had long dwindled into obscurity. Cyr claims to have been inspired to create the Cyr wheel after seeing a large hula-hoop and a circular wrought-iron coat rack [source: Inertie].

Cyr's first model was formed from a single piece of rough steel. In later iterations, he switched to aluminum for lightness and added a PVC coating for a smoother spin. Eventually, he came up with a highly portable design that could be broken down into five pieces and reassembled easily with screws [source: Inertie].

Next we'll chronicle the Cyr wheel's rise to fame through its best performers and biggest shows.