What is a Penny Farthing Bicycle?

When you think of an old-timey bicycle, what comes to mind?

You’re probably picturing a bike with one very large wheel and one small wheel. This bike is known as a high wheel, or more commonly, as a penny-farthing bicycle. How did this odd bike come to be? Why the unusual design? 

What is a penny farthing, and how did it get the name?

In this article, we’ll be covering:

  • History Of The Penny Farthing Bicycle
  • How Did The Penny Farthing Get Its Name?
  • What Was Unusual About The Penny Farthing Bicycle?
  • Why Did The Penny Farthing Bike Go Out Of Fashion?

Ready for the lowdown on the penny farthing bicycle?

Let’s get to it!

What Is A Penny Farthing Bicycle: Title Image

The history of the penny farthing bicycle

The penny farthing bicycle became popular in the 1870s and 1880s. The original design was based on the boneshaker, a bicycle developed in the 1860s in France.

The boneshaker earned its moniker due to the fact that its ride was incredibly uncomfortable. The frame was made of wrought iron, the wheels from wood, and the tires of iron.

However, the boneshaker was the first type of bicycle to feature pedals. Despite the rough ride, the boneshaker was very popular and paved the way for future bicycles.

A French "boneshaker" bicycle from the mid-19th century.
A French “boneshaker” bicycle from the mid-19th century.

In 1869, Eugene Meyer fashioned the wire-spoke tension wheel into a high-wheel bicycle he created. 

The following year, James Starley started to produce bicycles based on the boneshaker, but with a larger front wheel. These would become what we know as the penny farthing bicycle.

Despite the odd look of the penny-farthing, the bike featured a pretty good ride. The front tire on the bike could be up to 5 feet in diameter!

While this made mounting and dismounting problematic, the larger tire size meant that the bike was able to roll over rough terrain very easily.

This made the bike popular in urban streets where cobblestones, ruts, and other uneven surfaces were found in abundance.

The large wheel also meant that the rider could pedal less and still go fast – unless they were going up steep hills.

The penny farthing was a direct drive bike, meaning the pedals directly turned the wheel. This was standard until the chain drive replaced it on safety bicycles.

Close-up of the pedals on a penny farthing bicycle.

While the early penny farthing bikes were made of cast iron, similar to the bonecrushers, the bikes later employed hollow section steel frames which made them much lighter. Penny farthings could weigh anywhere from 24 pounds to 49 pounds.

Humber and Co Ltd. created a light model that weighed 24 pounds. The bike had no frame step or brakes in order to reduce weight.

Pope Manufacturing company created a penny-farthing that weighed in at 49 pounds. The bike featured a forged steel fork and a brake and brake lever on the handlebar.

In addition to the changes to the frame, ball bearings and solid rubber tires also became the norm. Some bikes even had a spoon brake attached to a lever on the handlebar that would press against the wheel in order to slow the bike down.

All of these improvements created a bicycle that was lighter and provided a much smoother ride than previous bikes.

Despite the relative speed of the penny farthing, the bicycle was largely a recreational device at the time and not used as a major form of transportation. Due to the cost of a bike, most buyers and riders were affluent men who had the time and the money for such a pursuit.

However, the penny farthing saw the introduction of some of the first bicycle clubs and races. This is seen as the beginning of the sport of bicycle racing.

Despite the odd appearance, the penny farthing was actually an incredibly durable bike. This was largely due to the materials it was made from and the simple bearings and direct drive.

In fact, the bike was so durable that it was ridden around the world with almost no issues. 

In the 1880s, cyclist Thomas Stevens rode a penny farthing around the world. In 12,000 miles (20,000 kilometers) of riding, the only mechanical issue he reported was when the front wheel was damaged after the bike was confiscated by the local military.

Several hour records were also set on the penny farthing. These range from 15 miles (25.5 kilometers) which was set in 1876, to 21.92 miles (35.28 kilometers) set in 2018.

Today the penny farthing is synonymous with the Victorian era.

A black penny farthing bike hangs on a whitewashed wall.

The origins of the name

The name “penny farthing” might seem a bit unusual for a bicycle.

The name was derived from two British coins: the penny and the farthing. A penny is much larger than a farthing. To many, the profile of the wheels looked like a larger penny being followed by the smaller farthing, hence the name.

To make it even more unusual, the penny farthing bike did not gain its popular name until it was already obsolete. In its heyday, it was simply known as a bicycle. The first recorded instance of it being referred to as a penny farthing was in 1891 in Bicycle News.

After the invention of the safety bike, many started referring to penny-farthing bicycles as “ordinary” to distinguish between the two. 

The penny farthing is often known as the high-wheel (or high-wheeler) by present-day enthusiasts.

Close-up of the handlebars and saddle of a penny farthing bicycle.

What made it unusual

By modern standards, the penny farthing is an odd-looking bicycle. Our present-day bicycles feature two wheels of equal, or near equal, measure.

The size difference between the two wheels might seem odd but it did serve a purpose. As mentioned earlier the larger tire size created a more comfortable ride and allowed a rider to achieve high speeds with the direct drive pedals.

The comfortable ride made the penny farthing superior to the earlier boneshaker. This was especially important before the invention of pneumatic tires led to smoother rides. This would allow bikes to be fitted with smaller wheels while not sacrificing ride quality.

The small wheel on the back of the penny-farthing was only there for stability. The handlebars, pedals, and saddle were all fixed to the frame near the larger front tire.

The riding position made the bike difficult to mount and dismount. James Starley, the “father of British cycling” created a bike he called Ariel, which featured a step on the frame to help the rider mount and dismount easier.

With some practice on lower bikes, a rider could become proficient in mounting and dismounting the high wheels on flat ground and low hills.

The large front tire and high seat of the penny farthing meant that the rider was in constant danger of being launched over the front handlebars. This was known as “taking a header”.

There were several different handlebar designs in an attempt to make this safer for cyclists. The most common was mustache handlebars that allowed the rider’s knees to clear in the event of a header.

Other handlebar designs included some that wrapped behind the legs of the rider.

Due to the direct drive and top-heavy nature of the bike, riders would often take their feet off the pedals and put their legs over the handlebars while riding downhill. In the event the front tire caught and the bike tipped forward, the rider was able to go legs first toward the ground instead of head first.

Some later designs tried to improve upon this by swapping the larger tire to the back and having the smaller tire in the front.

While this prevented headers, it also meant that a rider was at risk of tipping over backward if they were riding up a particularly steep hill.

1880s diagram of a penny farthing and a safety bicycle.
1880s diagram of a penny farthing and a safety bicycle.

Why it became obsolete

The penny farthing became obsolete in the late 1880s with the invention of the safety bicycle.

The safety bicycle was invented by John Starley, the nephew of James Starley, the father of British cycling. It was chain driven, meaning it could match the speed of the penny farthing without having to rely on a large wheel.

When John Dunlop invented pneumatic tires for bicycles and tricycles, bicycles no longer needed a large tire for a smooth ride. Bikes now featured 2 tires that were the same (or similar) size.

The low seat made a much lower center of gravity, which meant the rider was able to mount and dismount the bike much easier. It also meant the rider was much less likely to take a header compared to riding on the penny farthing.

This reduced the risk of injury from a fall since the seat was much lower than the seat on a penny farthing. This is how it earned the name “safety bicycle”.

By 1893, the production of high-wheel bikes had slowed significantly. The safety bike had almost completely taken over as the choice for recreational riders.

Today, a lot of companies restore or produce replicas of the penny farthing bicycle.

While the design might seem incredibly odd to us today, the penny farthing bicycle heralded in the age of the bicycle and was the beginning of bicycling for fun and sport.

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Adam Rabo has been running since junior high. He has coached high school and college distance runners. He is currently training for a marathon, the R2R2R, and a 100-mile ultra. He lives in Colorado Springs, CO.

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