The penny-farthing, also known as a ‘high wheel,’ ‘high wheeler,’ and ‘ordinary,’ was the first machine to be called a ‘bicycle.’ It was popular in the 1870s and 1880s, with its large front wheel providing high speeds (owing to it travelling a large distance for every rotation of the legs) and comfort (the large wheel also provides greater shock absorption). Although the trend was short-lived, the penny-farthing became a symbol of the late Victorian era. Its popularity also coincided with the birth of cycling as a sport.

It became obsolete from the late 1880s with the development of modern bicycles, which provided similar speed amplification via chain-driven gear trains and comfort through pneumatic tyres, and were marketed in comparison to penny-farthings as ‘safety bicycles’ due to the reduced danger of falling and the reduced height to fall from.

The name came from the British penny and farthing coins, one much larger than the other, so that the side view resembles a penny leading a farthing. Although the name is now the most common, it was probably not used until the machines were nearly outdated; the first recorded print reference is from 1891 in ‘Bicycling News.’ For most of their reign, they were simply known as ‘bicycles.’ In the late 1890s, the name ‘ordinary’ began to be used, to distinguish them from the emerging ‘safety bicycles’; this term and ‘hi-wheel’ (and variants) are preferred by many modern enthusiasts.

Following the popularity of the boneshaker (the first type of true bicycle with pedals, which was called ‘velocipede’ by its manufacturers), Eugène Meyer, a Frenchman, invented the high-wheeler bicycle design in 1869 and fashioned the wire-spoke tension wheel. Around 1870 English inventor James Starley, described as the father of the bicycle industry, and others, began producing bicycles based on the French boneshaker but with front wheels of increasing size, because larger front wheels, up to 5 feet in diameter, enabled higher speeds on bicycles limited to direct drive. In 1878, Albert Pope began manufacturing the Columbia bicycle outside Boston, starting their two-decade heyday in America.

Eugène Meyer of Paris, France is now regarded as the father of the high bicycle by the International Cycling History Conference in place of James Starley. Meyer patented a wire-spoke tension wheel with individually adjustable spokes in 1869 They were called ‘spider’ wheels in Britain when introduced there. Meyer produced a classic high bicycle design during the 1880s. James Starley in Coventry added the tangent spokes and the mounting step to his famous bicycle named ‘Ariel.’ He is regarded as the father of the British cycling industry. Ball bearings, solid rubber tires and hollow-section steel frames became standard, reducing weight and making the ride much smoother.

Penny-farthing bicycles often used similar materials and construction as earlier velocipedes: cast iron frames, solid rubber tires, and plain bearings for pedals, steering, and wheels. They were often quite durable and required little service. For example, when cyclist Thomas Stevens rode around the world in the 1880s, he reported only one significant mechanical problem in over 12,000 miles, caused when the local military confiscated his bicycle and damaged the front wheel.

Penny-farthing bicycles are dangerous due to the risk of headers (taking a fall over the handlebars head-first). Makers developed ‘moustache’ handlebars, allowing the rider’s knees to clear them, ‘Whatton’ handlebars that wrapped around behind the legs, and ultimately (though too late, after development of the safety bicycle), the American ‘Eagle’ and ‘Star’ bicycles, whose large and small wheels were reversed. This prevented headers, but left the danger of being thrown backwards when riding uphill. Other attempts included moving the seat rearward and driving the wheel by levers or treadles, as in the ‘Xtraordinary’ and ‘Facile,’ or gears, by chain as in the ‘Kangaroo’ or at the hub, as in the ‘Crypto’; another option was to move the seat well back, as in the ‘Rational.’ Bicycling remained the province of the urban well-to-do, and mainly men, until the 1890s, and was a salient example of conspicuous consumption.

In 1888, when John Dunlop re-invented the pneumatic tire for his son’s tricycle, the high wheel was made obsolete. The comfortable ride once found only on tall wheels could now be enjoyed on smaller chain-driven bicycles. By 1893, high-wheelers were no longer being produced. Use lingered into the 1920s in track cycling until racing safety bicycles were adequately designed. Today, enthusiasts ride restored penny-farthings, and a few manufacturers build new ones.

The penny-farthing is a direct-drive bicycle, meaning the cranks and pedals are fixed directly to the hub. Instead of using gears to multiply the revolutions of the pedals, the driven wheel is enlarged to be close to the rider’s inseam, to increase the maximum speed. This shifts the rider nearly on top of the wheel and makes it impossible for the rider to reach the ground while sitting on the seat.

The frame is a single tube following the circumference of the front wheel, then diverting to a trailing wheel. A mounting peg is above the rear wheel. The front wheel is in a rigid fork with little if any trail. A spoon brake is usually fitted on the fork crown, operated by a lever from one of the handlebars. The bars are usually mustache shaped, dropping from the level of the headset. The saddle mounts on the frame less than 18 inches behind the headset. Mounting requires skill. The rider must first grasp the handlebar and place one foot on a peg above the back wheel. Then the rider scoots the bicycle forward to gain momentum and quickly jumps up onto the seat while continuing to steer the bicycle and maintain balance.


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