Shelly's Blog

p e a c e l u v n' k i t t e n s

High Wheel Bicycles – Ordinary Bicycle, Velocipede, Penny Farthing


The High Wheel Bicycle


In 1870 the first all metal machine appeared. (Previous to this metallurgy was not advanced enough to provide metal which was strong enough to make small, light parts out of.) The pedals were still atttached directly to the front wheel with no freewheeling mechanism. Solid rubber tires and the long spokes of the large front wheel provided a much smoother ride than its predecessor. The front wheels became larger and larger as makers realized that the larger the wheel, the farther you could travel with one rotation of the pedals. You would purchase a wheel as large as your leg length would allow. This machine was the first one to be called a bicycle (“two wheel”). These bicycles enjoyed a great popularity among young men of means (they cost an average worker six month’s pay), with the hey-day being the decade of the 1880s.

Because the rider sat so high above the center of gravity, if the front wheel was stopped by a stone or rut in the road, or the sudden emergence of a dog, the entire apparatus rotated forward on its front axle, and the rider, with his legs trapped under the handlebars, was dropped unceremoniously on his head. Thus the term “taking a header” came into being.


The Velocipede


The Velocipede was a series of human-powered vehicles created in the Victorian age, that eventually was named the tricycle. There were designs with two, three and four wheels. Some two-wheeled designs had pedals mounted on the front wheel, while three- and four-wheeled designs used treadles and levers to drive the rear wheels. Later two-wheel versions had increasingly large front wheels, directly driven by bicycle pedals, and a smaller back wheel—these leading to the penny farthing. This invention was made by Walter Hunt.

The two-wheeled velocipede sometimes called the boneshaker was invented in 1863 in France by Pierre Lallement. The Michaux company was the first to mass-produce the velocipede, from 1867 to 1870. It cost $100 in 1870, making it unaffordable to the working classes.

A front wheeled Velocipede,1867 to 1870 or “Safety Bike” the front wheel helped prevent the rider from flying forward if something was hit.


Ordinary Bicycle/Circa 1870


Around this time, the diameter of bicycle front wheels started to get gradually larger and larger. The reason for this was the larger the front wheel, the farther the bicycle travels with each wheel revolution, thereby producing higher speeds. Another name for this model was a penny-farthing because it resembled the English penny and farthing (one-quarter pence) placed next to each other. Ordinary bicycles had straight handlebars and wooden rims and spokes. In Japan, they were called “daruma jitensha” or “ichirinsha.” This new form of bicycle required advanced riding technique.

The Penny-Farthing


An early form of bicycle with a very large front wheel and a small rear wheel.

The Penny Farthing is also referred to as the ‘High’ or ‘Ordinary’ bicycle, and the first one was invented in 1871 by British engineer, James Starley. The Penny Farthing 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 really efficient bicycle, consisting of a small rear wheel and large front wheel pivoting on a simple tubular frame with tires of rubber.

The penny farthing was considered an improvement on the Velocipede. It was popular between 1873 and 1885. It was designed for speed and could reach speeds of 20mph. The problem was getting on and off. You could leap onto the bike as it moved or use a mounting block, find a handy wall to use as a prop or just fall off. It was not a very safe bicycle therefore but it triggered the invention of safer bicycles. From 1879 onwards the first “safety” bicycles appeared. These incorporated a chain and by 1885 bicycles began to look and operate more like they do today!

What is a penny farthing?

The penny farthing, also called an ordinary, is a type of bicycle invented in the early 1870s. It was so named because its large front wheel and small rear wheel were as disproportionate in size as coins, the penny and the smaller farthing. As the successor to the velocipede, the penny farthing gained mechanical advantage by enlarging the size of the pedal-driven front wheel so that each turn would cover a greater distance.

The penny farthing was one of the world’s first practical, human-powered land vehicles. It brought mobility to people who did not have access to, or the wherewithal for, a horse and carriage. Its appeal drew people outside, to mix among one another, in a way that previous forms of transportation had not.

The penny-farthing’s almost risibly large front wheel embodies the essence of bicycle racing, for the only way to make the bicycle any faster was to enlarge the front wheel. Even way back in the olden days cyclers were hot to outpace one another.



Miscellaneous High Bike Photos:


Steam-Power Bike:


3 Penny Farthing:


Bicycle Evolution:


How to mount a high-wheeled bicycle:

One Comment to

“High Wheel Bicycles – Ordinary Bicycle, Velocipede, Penny Farthing”

  1. Avatar May 8th, 2012 at 10:10 am HENRY Says:


You must be logged in to post a comment.