The Penny Farthing bicycle came after the development of the ‘Hobbyhorse’, and the French ‘Velocipede’ or ‘Boneshaker’, all versions of early bikes. However, the Penny Farthing was the first truly efficient bicycle, consisting of a small rear wheel and large front wheel attached to an iron tubular frame with tires made of rubber. It was widely used in the 1860’s.
History of Bicycles
The first true bicycle predecessor was created around 1820. Called the Draisine, walking machine, hobby horse, or dandy horse, it was invented by German Baron Karl von Drais. Widely regarded as the forerunner to the modern bicycle, the rider of the dandy horse sat astride a wooden frame supported by two in-line wheels and pushed the bicycle along with his feet while steering the front wheel via handlebars.
The first modern day bicycle was created in the early 1860’s. The Olivier brothers, Aime, Rene, and Marius, recognized the commercial potential of the dandy horse and set up a partnership with blacksmith and bicycle makers Pierre Michausx and Pierre Lallement to improve the bicycle design and mass produce them. They attached rotary cranks and pedals to the front wheel hub of a dandy horse walking machine creating the first pedal powered bicycle. Mass production of the “velocipedes” began in 1868 and by the following year, a velocipede craze reached full force in Europe and America. The fad quickly faded primarily because the bikes were so uncomfortable to ride. Using a stiff iron frame and wooden wheels surrounded by tire made of iron, they were sometimes referred to as “Boneshakers”.
The Penny Farthing Bike
By 1870, the designs of the boneshakers began to change with the front wheel of the bicycle being made larger and larger in order to improve the comfort for the rider. Originally known simply as bicycles or “high-wheels”, people began referring to them as “Penny Farthings” because of their resemblance of its wheel sizes to the largest and smallest English copper coins of the day. The Penny Farthings were expensive too and thus riders were mostly wealthy young men.
The Penny Farthing bicycle construction was similar to the construction of the earlier velocipedes. A cast iron tube frame followed the circumference of the front wheel and then diverting to the smaller back wheel. Using solid rubber tires, plain bearings for pedals, steering, and wheels, the Penny Farthing was a direct drive bicycle meaning the cranks and pedals were fixed directly to the wheel hub instead of using gears or chain drives.
The front wheel, which was housed in a rigid fork, grew to as much as five feet in diameter. This larger front wheel allowed the bike to roll more readily over stones, rocks, and bumpy roads. The ride of the Penny Farthing was much more comfortable than earlier Boneshaker bicycles.
Moustache handlebars were added to allow the rider’s knees to clear the bars. A mounting peg was located above the rear wheel. A “spoon brake” was fitted on the top of the front wheel fork and operated by a lever that was attached to one of the handlebars.
The Penny Farthing bicycles were very durable and required little maintenance or service. In fact, when cyclist Thomas Stevens rode one around the world in the 1880’s, he had only a single mechanical problem (which was caused when the local military confiscated his bicycle and damaged the front wheel in the process).
One Penny Farthing model was made by Pope Manufacturing Company in 1886. Located in Hartford, Connecticut, the company began with the introduction of the Columbia High Wheeler Penny Farthing bicycle. It weighed 36 lbs. and had a 60-spoke 53-inch front wheel and a 28-spoke 18-inch rear wheel.
The Operation and Dangers of the Penny Farthing
Mounting and starting the Penny Farthing required a high level of skill. The rider placed one foot on the peg above the back wheel then grabbed the handlebar and while rolling, lifted himself into the bicycle seat. Riders dismounted by tipping the bike over or sliding off the back of the seat and running to a stop.
Penny Farthing bicycles were considered by the general public to be quite dangerous. The rider rode nearly on top of the front wheel and their feet could not reach the ground. Since the rider sat high and nearly over the front axle, when the wheel struck rocks or ruts in the road, or if the rider braked the bicycle too hard, the rider could be pitched forward off the bicycle head first. Known as “taking a header” or simply “a header”, head first accidents were quite common. It was not uncommon for a Penny Farthing rider to die from taking a header. When coasting down hills, the direct drive required the riders take their feet off the pedals and put them over the tops of the handlebars which provided an added advantage of being pitched off the bicycle feet first instead of head first.
Regardless of the danger, Penny Farthings were simpler, lighter, and faster than the safer velocipedes of the time.
The Golden Age of Bicycles
Continued bicycle innovations and design improvements increased the comfort of the rider which ushered in a second bicycle craze, the 1890’s Golden Age of Bicycles. Chain drives were introduced allowing improved torque independent of the wheel size. The pneumatic tire was introduced in 1888. Later the rear free wheel was developed enabling the riders to coast. This in turn led to coaster brakes. The comfortable and efficient ride previously only possible due to the large front wheel of the Penny Farthing, made the high wheel Penny Farthing bicycle obsolete.
Ironically, the nephew of the man responsible for the popularity of the Penny Farthing was largely responsible for its demise. In 1885, John Kemp Starley launched the Rover Safety Bicycle and set out to design a safer and easier to use bicycle. It was called the safety bicycle because the rider was seated much lower and further behind the front wheel and thus were less prone to “headers”. Starley’s Rover bicycle is usually described by historians as the first recognizably modern bicycle.