The penny-farthing is a well-known cliché image of the Victorian age. A bizarre and short-lived velocipede that despite its short window in history, made a great impact in the world of cycling today. These ‘high-wheelers’ or ‘ordinary bicycles’ were the first bicycles with which actual speed and distance could be achieved in a practical manner.
Penny- farthings were contraptions born from the designs of the famous French ‘boneshaker’ – which as the name suggests, was a highly uncomfortable ride.
Envisage hurtling along, poised atop a frame designed of stiff wrought-iron with only iron tires on wooden wheels to provide suspension, and you probably wouldn’t be far off imagining a French ‘boneshaker’ ride. This was the first type of true bicycle with pedals and they were hailed with the name ‘velocipedes’ ( human-powered land vehicles with one or more wheels), by their manufacturers.
During the early 1870s, English inventor James Starley started manufacturing bicycles based on the ‘boneshaker’ design. He increased the front wheel size to enable higher speeds, and so created the famous penny-farthing.
We’ve all heard of the penny-farthing and many of us have seen pictures of them – the bravest of us can even ride them. But imagine riding one at high-speed along the roughest roads of the late 1800s. Bear in mind, you’ve no means to really brake, there’s every chance you’ll fall off and you’re perched at almost two metres from the ground. They were very dangerous and many succumbed to falling over the handlebars or performing a ‘header’. Despite their obvious risks however, high-wheelers appealed to the young and wealthy Victorian men who craved the excitement and thrill of such speedy and technically-advanced machines.
The term penny-farthing originated from the comparison of the smaller and larger wheels to farthing and penny coins, referenced a lot in the media as a derogatory word during the 1890s when the contraptions were almost outdated. Many enthusiasts today may ask you to call them ‘high-wheelers’ or ‘ordinary bicycles’ – a name they were given during the late 1890s to differentiate from the new and up-coming ‘safety bicycles.’
The launch of the Rover Safety Bicycle saw to a halt in the manufacture of the high-wheeled ordinary bicycles by 1893. The ‘Rover’ was lower, the rider sat further behind from the front wheel and so was less prone to fall forward – a common problem with the penny-farthing. With the development of the Rover’s upgraded chain drivers, higher speeds could be obtained without the large wheel and the high-wheeled bicycle was outdated. From 1895 they were simply known as an ‘ordinary’ or the now-familiar coinage-based term of disparagement – penny-farthing.
Today they stand as a much loved symbol of Victorian leisure and bridge the early bicycle design with our light-weight road racers today – no doubt with a claim to have helped inspire the birth of cycling as a sport as well.