The Iconic Penny-Farthing Bicycles: A Brief History | PedalChef

Key Takeaways

  • The Penny-Farthing bike was invented in 1871 by James Starley.
  • This bike is called the Penny-Farthing because it was named after two coins in production in England at the time.
  • This bike had a short stay at the top because, in 1885, the modern safety bicycle was invented.

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As you pedal through the bustling streets of your modern city, it's hard to imagine a time when the Penny-Farthing bicycle was the newest invention in history.

The Penny-Farthing was invented in 1871 by James Starley. It was one of the first bicycles ever made, built with a metal frame, metal wheels, and giant rubber tires. The large front wheel sat above the handlebars and had a smaller rear wheel for balance. It was a historical symbol in England.

With years of research and a deep appreciation for cycling, I’ve learned much about the Penny-Farthing and its rich history. Join me as we traverse the winding paths of time, unearthing the remarkable story behind this extraordinary two-wheeled marvel.



The Iconic Penny-Farthing Bicycle: A Brief History

The iconic Penny-Farthing bicycle, also known as the high-wheel bicycle, was a distinctive and popular mode of transportation in the late 19th century. It’s a lasting symbol, so let’s review its history in more detail.

Invention & History

The Penny-Farthing bike was invented in 1871 by James Starley. This bicycle became popular in the 1870s and early 1880s. It had a short run because, in 1985, the 1885 Rover safety bicycle was invented with more modern materials.

The new design of tire creation and that classic look of the penny-farthing soon became highly popular in England and France. The high bicycle used chain drive. They were also faster than the modern bicycle.

Around the same time, John Dunlop also invented the pneumatic tire. But in general, these safety bicycles were used for a high wheel race because they reached higher speeds. They were also the first machines referred to as bicycles.

Today, these bikes are far less relevant. But in some places, you can still see them around. For example, there is the Penny Farthing Club in London, where people can learn how to ride one.

Features and Design Elements

One of the most striking features of Penny-Farthing bicycles is the size of the wheels. The large front wheel provides both high speeds - since it travels a large distance for each rotation of the legs - and comfort due to its greater shock absorption.

These bikes got their name from the penny and farthing coins of that time, as the sizes of the wheels resemble these coins. The materials used to build Penny-Farthing bicycles were also noteworthy. Unlike earlier bicycles which were made of wood,

Penny-Farthings were made entirely of metal with solid rubber tires. In my research, I noticed that "ordinaries" (another name for Penny-Farthings) typically weighed around 40 pounds (18 kg), but there were track-racing models as light as 16 pounds.

How Does a Penny Farthing Bike Work?

It's fascinating how the large front wheel works with the significantly smaller rear wheel to provide a smooth and exciting ride. The main reason for the large front wheel is to increase the bicycle's speed.

Since the pedals are attached directly to the front wheel, a larger wheel covers more distance with each rotation of the pedals. Riders generally sit high up, which can improve their visibility on the road.

However, this design has a few drawbacks. Due to the rider's position near the front axle, striking rocks or ruts can lead to a sometimes fatal hazard called "headers." Headers occur when riders are pitched forward off the bicycle head-first.

Here are a few mechanical components of penny-farthing bicycles:

  • Frame: Typically made of metal, penny farthings have a relatively simple frame design.
  • Tires: These bicycles were among the first to use all-metal construction and entirely new tire designs that featured solid rubber.
  • Pedals: Attached directly to the front wheel's axle, the pedals power the bicycle without any gears or chains.

Penny farthing riders rely on a large front wheel and small rear wheel to function. The design offers increased speed but comes with safety concerns due to the rider's position.

Popularity and Use Of The Penny Farthing Bicycle

Below we will explain more about the popularity of this bike and how it was used.

Leisure and Racing

This bike was also commonly known as a high wheel or a high wheeler. Popular in the 1870s and 1880s, the bike's large front wheel provided an interesting mix of high speeds and surprising comfort.

I found that the origin of this peculiar bicycle can be traced back to Eugène Meyer of Paris, who was the first bicycle maker to create its distinctive design and classic look. The penny-farthing became massively popular in England and France, with people enjoying it for leisure rides and racing events.

Decline in Popularity

However, as with all things, the penny-farthing's popularity began to wane. This could be attributed to the introduction of the safer and more practical safety bicycle, which eventually took over as the standard design.

The transition to the newer bicycle model led to a decline in the production and use of penny-farthings, sealing their place in history as a remarkable yet short-lived innovation.

As a bicycle enthusiast, I am continually fascinated by the evolution of bicycles and the interesting designs that emerged throughout history. The Penny-Farthing remains an iconic symbol of a time when innovation and excitement fueled the world of cycling.

Penny-Farthing Bike Legacy and Modern Interpretations

Cultural Impact

In the late 19th century, the Penny Farthing bicycles took the world by storm. Their unique design and the sense of adventure they instilled in riders captured the hearts of many.

As a symbol of the Victorian era, Penny-Farthings still spark my curiosity and admiration today. The advent of these high-wheelers also played a significant role in promoting cycling as a popular pastime and sport.

I'm amazed at how the daredevil spirit of the Penny-Farthing racers eventually laid the foundation for modern racing events.

Contemporary Penny-Farthing Events

Even though a century has passed since the Penny-Farthing heyday, I still see people keeping the spirit alive through various modern events. One such event that caught my attention is the Knutsford Great Race, held in the UK every decade.

Participants from around the globe compete in a unique 20-lap race on vintage high-wheel bicycles. Another wonderful event I've come across is the Evandale Village Fair and National Penny Farthing Championships in Australia, where cyclists showcase their skills on both modern and traditional bikes.

The event also includes novelty races, giving me a glimpse into the excitement and thrill that these unique bicycles offered in their prime.

Why Is It Called a Penny Farthing Bike?

This name comes from two British coins: the penny and the farthing. Imagine a large penny coin representing the big front wheel and a much smaller farthing coin symbolizing the smaller rear wheel.

The visual comparison between these coins and the bicycle's wheels led to this distinctive name. In its heyday during the 1870s and early 1880s, the penny-farthing was simply called a bicycle.

One interesting fact about penny-farthings is that they were typically only affordable to wealthy young men. This was due to their expensive production cost, which involved solid rubber tires, a cast iron frame, and pedals attached directly to the wheel hub.

Are Penny Farthing Bicycles Still Made Today?

Yes, it’s possible to still find one or two brands manufacturing this bike style. UDC Penny Farthings are available for purchase around the world.

I must point out that these bicycles are not as practical as contemporary bikes. Riding a Penny Farthing can be quite challenging, considering their high front wheel and small rear wheel.

That being said, the love and nostalgia for these bicycles are alive and well in the hearts of some cycling enthusiasts. So, if you ever feel the desire to own or ride one of these iconic bicycles, there's a chance you can find one, though it might not be as easy as getting a regular modern bike.

The Penny Farthing might be old-fashioned, but it definitely still has its unique vibe and charm. Some of the newer, modern designs are still fast and capable. There are also Penny Farthing races today too.