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The Penny Farthing bicycle fad of the 1860’s

Men with Penny Farthing bicycles 6

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

Draisine bicycle 1817

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.

Velocipede bicycle circa 1870

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 tires made of iron, they were sometimes referred to as “Boneshakers”.

The Penny Farthing Bike

Man on Penny Farthing bicycle 2

By 1870, the designs of the boneshakers began to change with the front wheel of the bicycle being made larger and larger 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 the 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.

Man with his Penny Farthing bicycle 1

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 exceptionally 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.

Penny Farthing bicycles as deadly killing machines

Man with his Penny Farthing bicycle 3

Mounting and starting the Penny Farthing required a prominent 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 public to be quite dangerous.  The rider rode on top of the front wheel and their feet could not reach the ground.  Since the rider sat high and 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 headfirst.  Known as “taking a header” or simply “a header”, headfirst 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 to 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 was less prone to “headers”. Starley’s Rover bicycle is usually described by historians as the first recognizably modern bicycle.

Geek Slop’s Penny Farthing Bicycle virtual museum

Image Credits

Velocipede bicycle circa 1870 via Britannica with usage type - Public Domain
Draisine bicycle 1817 via Bicycle History with usage type - Public Domain
A man riding a penny farthing during a veteran cycling meet via Country Life with usage type - Public Domain
Man on Penny Farthing bicycle 2 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man on Penny Farthing bicycle 3 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man with his Penny Farthing bicycle 1 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man with his Penny Farthing bicycle 2 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man with his Penny Farthing bicycle 3 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Men with Penny Farthing bicycles 1 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Men with Penny Farthing bicycles 2 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Men with Penny Farthing bicycles 3 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Men with Penny Farthing bicycles 4 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man on Penny Farthing bicycle 3 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man on Penny Farthing bicycle 4 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man with his Penny Farthing bicycle 4 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man on Penny Farthing bicycle 5 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man with his Penny Farthing bicycle 5 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man with his Penny Farthing bicycle 6 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Boy with Penny Farthing bicycle via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man with his Penny Farthing bicycle 7 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Men with Penny Farthing bicycles 6 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man on Penny Farthing bicycle 6 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Men with Penny Farthing bicycles 7 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man with his Penny Farthing bicycle 8 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man on Penny Farthing bicycle 7 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man with his Penny Farthing bicycle 9 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man with his Penny Farthing bicycle 10 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man with his Penny Farthing bicycle 11 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man on Penny Farthing bicycle 8 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man on Penny Farthing bicycle 9 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man with his Penny Farthing bicycle 12 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Woman with Penny Farthing bicycle via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man with his Penny Farthing bicycle 13 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man with his Penny Farthing bicycle 15 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man on Penny Farthing bicycle 10 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Men with Penny Farthing bicycles 8 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Men and boys with Penny Farthing bicycles 9 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Columbia Bicycle Penny Farthing bicycle advertisement via Etsy with usage type - Public Domain
Tandem Penny Farthing bicycle via Unicycle with usage type - Public Domain
Penny Farthing bicycle from 1925 encyclopedia via Flickr with usage type - Public Domain
Penny Farthing bicycle 1881 via Flickr with usage type - Public Domain
A cyclists with a Penny Farthing bicycle 1883 via Flickr by Hammer & Co. with usage type - Public Domain
Men riding Penny Farthing bicycles in modern times via Flickr by Dave Pearce with usage type - Creative Commons License
Man with Penny Farthing bicycle circa 1885 via Flickr with usage type - Public Domain
W. Tregonning South Australian champion cyclist on penny-farthing bicycle 1881 via Flickr with usage type - Public Domain
Penny Farthing bicycle shop via Flickr with usage type - Public Domain
Woman in a costume, bare legs, sitting on a penny farthing via Flickr by State Library Victoria College with usage type - Public Domain
Cover of The Modern Bicycle 1877 via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Public Domain
A cabinet card of a man with a penny-farthing bicycle 1880 via Wikipedia Commons by D. Gordon Junr. with usage type - Public Domain. Photographed and publisher by D. Gordon Junr. Ladybank, Fife, Scotland.
An 1880 penny-farthing (left), and the first modern bicycle, J. K. Starley's 1885 Rover safety bicycle via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - Public Domain
Man on Penny Farthing bicycle 11 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Penny Farthing bicycle of the 18702 with rider wearing cycling clothes via Mary Evans Picture Library with usage type - Public Domain
Men on penny farthing bicycles 1886 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain
Man on Penny Farthing bicycle via EBay with usage type - Public Domain
Edwin Davey, riding a penny farthing bicycle over Lambeth bridge in London via Country Life with usage type - Public Domain

Featured Image Credit

Men with Penny Farthing bicycles 6 via Vintage Everyday with usage type - Public Domain