STCC Bike Month Facts #12 Penny Farthing

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Penny Farthing

We'll step back today and take a look at one of the more interesting versions of the bicycle.  This bicycle has been known as the "high wheeler", the "high wheel" and eventually as the Penny Farthing.  I'm sure you've either seen replicas of these interesting machines or at least pictures and drawings illustrating cycling at the turn of the 20th century.  These bicycles were originally designed around 1870 by James Starley, based on the French boneshaker but with front wheels of increasing size.  The concept of the larger wheel is that the larger the driving wheel, in this case the front, the faster one could travel.  This is a little different take on the modern bicycle design, we just use larger cranks instead.  It certainly is easier to get on and off our current bikes, but the view from the saddle is not nearly as impressive.  This bicycle might seem a far cry from today's versions, but the popularity of the design and mass production, contributed greatly to early successes, including driving the formation of the League of American Wheelmen and creating a need for the development of a dependable system of roads.

The name Penny Farthing is believed to have come from the British penny and farthing coins.  One is much larger than the other and, when placed side by side, closely resemble this bicycle.

Mounting & Dismounting

When you see one of these devices, one of the first question is "how do you get on?".  The cyclist uses the step on the left side of the frame, just above the rear wheel. You would put your left foot on it, hold the handlebars with your hands, then push off with your right foot. You then jump to the seat, place your feet on the pedals and - off you go!

Of course, I always worry about the end of the ride, when I stop pedaling and want to gracefully make it to the ground.  For dismounting, you could either hold on to the handlebars and jump off the back or, with a little skill,  put your left foot on the step, and swing your right foot down onto the ground.


The brake is the shoehorn looking device that sits on top of the front tire.  The rider simply presses it into the front tire to slow down  You can just see the brake in this picture – it is a spoon shaped plate that the rider could press onto the front tire to slow it down. The rider could also put reverse pressure on the pedals, as with today's fixed gear bikes.  Just don't press the front brake too hard - or there may be a "header" photo opportunity.

Other Fun Facts

Although it looks graceful, this design did have its issues.  It was common for those not paying careful attention to take a header when hitting an object.  You can imagine the pain induced by falling from such a height.  I hope you enjoy and please follow the reference links for more information.

Rideable Bicycle Replicas

Worksman Cycles

Penny Farthing Wikipedia

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