BikeParts Wiki
File:Ordinary bicycle01.jpg

A penny-farthing photographed in the Škoda Auto Museum in the Czech Republic

File:Penny Farthing Coins.JPG

Old British Penny and Farthing (quarter penny) coins which inspired the name of the Penny-Farthing bicycle.


Two men ride penny-farthings in Los Angeles, California, 1886.


Velocipedist in Sweden

File:Ordinary bicycle02.jpg

Penny-farthings are still ridden today, if only for the novelty value.


Students of Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, riding a penny-farthing and a quadruplet bicycle during the Chalmers Cortège of 2006.


Touring the countryside, 1887

Penny-farthing, high wheel, high wheeler, and ordinary are all terms used to describe a type of bicycle with a large front wheel and a much smaller rear wheel that was popular after the boneshaker, until the development of the safety bicycle, in the 1880s.[1] They were the first machines to be called 'bicycles'.[2]

Although they are now most commonly known as 'penny-farthings', this term was probably not used until they were nearly outdated - the first recorded print reference is 1891 in Bicycling News,[3] (It comes from the British penny and farthing coins, one much larger than the other so that the side view resembles a penny leading a farthing),[4] and for most of their reign in they were simply known as "bicycles". In the late 1890s the retronym 'ordinary' began to be used, to distinguish them from the emerging safety bicycles.[5] and this term or Hi-wheel (and variants) is preferred by many modern enthusiasts.[6][7]

About 1870, James Starley, described as the father of the bicycle industry, and others began producing bicycles based on the French boneshaker but with front wheels of increasing size,[4] because larger front wheels, up to 1.5 m (60 in) in diameter, enabled higher speeds on bicycles limited to direct drive.[1][4][8][9][10] In 1878 Albert Pope began manufacturing the Columbia bicycle outside of Boston, starting their two-decade heyday in America.[4] Although the trend was short-lived, the penny-farthing became a symbol of the late Victorian era. Its popularity also coincided with the birth of cycling as a sport.[4]



Frenchman Eugene Meyer is now regarded as the father of the High Bicycle by the International Cycling History Conference in place of James Starley. Meyer patented a wire-spoke tension wheel with individually adjustable spokes in 1869.[4] They were called 'spider' wheels in Britain when introduced there.[4] Meyer produced a classic high bicycle design until the 1880s.

James Starley in Coventry added the tangent spokes[4] and the mounting step to his famous bicycle named "Ariel." He is regarded as the father of the British cycling industry. Ball bearings, solid rubber tires and hollow-section steel frames became standard, reducing weight and making the ride much smoother.[4]

To cure some of the hazards, "moustache" handlebars, allowing the rider's knees to clear them,[11], "Whatton" handlebars, that wrapped around behind the legs,[12] and ultimately (though too late, after the Starley safety bike), with the 1889 American Eagle and Star, the position of big and small wheel was reversed.[13] This prevented headers, but left the danger of being thrown backwards when riding uphill. Other attempts included moving the seat and rearward and driving the wheel by levers, as in the Xtraordinary or Facile, or gears, by chain as in the Kangaroo or at the hub in the Crypto;[13] another option was to move the seat well back, as in the Rational.[13][14]

Even so, bicycling remained the province of the urban well-to-do, and mainly men, until the 1890s,[15] and were among the first examples of conspicuous consumption.[16]

End of an era[]

The well known dangers of the penny-farthing[17] were for the time of its prominence outweighed by its strengths. While it was a difficult, dangerous machine, it was more simple, lighter, and faster than the safer velocopeds of the time. Additionally the large wheel rode over bumps in the road more smoothly than smaller wheeled vehicles. Two new developments changed this situation, and led to the rise of the Safety bicycle. The first was the chain drive, originally used on tricycles, it allowed a gear ratio to be chosen independent of the wheel size. The second the pneumatic tire, allowing smaller wheels to provide a smooth ride.

The nephew of one of the men responsible for popularity of the penny-farthing was largely responsible for its death. James Starley had built the Ariel (spirit of the air)[18] high-wheeler in 1870 but this was a time of innovation and when chain drives were upgraded so that each link had a small roller, higher and higher speeds became possible without the large wheel. In 1885, Starley's nephew John Kemp Starley took these new developments to launch the Rover Safety Bicycle, so-called because the rider, seated much lower and farther behind the front wheel contact point, was less prone to "a header", (going over the bars).[4]

In 1888, when John Dunlop reinvented the pneumatic tire for his son's tricycle, the high wheel was made obsolete. The comfortable ride once found only on tall wheels could now be enjoyed on smaller chain-driven bicycles. By 1893 high-wheelers were no longer being produced.[1] Use lingered into the 1920s in track cycling until racing safety bicycles were perfected.

Today enthusiasts ride restored Penny-farthings, and a few manufacturers build new ones.[19]


The ordinary is a direct-drive bicycle, meaning the cranks and pedals are fixed directly to the hub. Instead of using "gears" to multiply the revolutions of the pedals, the driven wheel was enlarged to close to the rider's inseam to increase the maximum speed. This shifted the rider nearly on top of the wheel. His feet could not reach the ground.[4]


The frame is a single tube following the circumference of the front wheel, then diverting to a trailing wheel. A mounting peg is above the rear wheel. The front wheel is in a rigid fork with little if any trail. A spoon brake is usually fitted on the fork crown, operated by a lever from one of the handlebars. The bars are usually mustache shaped, dropping from the level of the headset. The saddle mounts on the frame less than 50 cm (18 in) behind the headset.

One particular model, made by Pope Manufacturing Company in 1886, weighs 36 lbs, has a 60-spoke 53-inch front wheel and a 20-spoke 18-inch rear wheel. It is fitted with solid rubber tires. The rims, frame, fork, and handlebars are made from hollow, steel tubing. The steel axles are mounted in adjustable ball bearings. The leather saddle is suspended by springs.[20]

Another model, made by Humber and Co., Ltd., of Beeston, Nottingham, England, weighs only 24 lbs, and has 52 and 18-inch wheels. It has no step and no brakes in order to minimize weight.[21]

A third model, also made by Pope Manufacturing Company, weighs 49 lbs and has forged steel forks. A brake lever on the right, straight handlebar operates a spoon brake against the front wheel.[22]

All three have cranks that can be adjusted for length.


Mounting requires skill. One foot is placed on a peg above the back wheel. The rider grasps the handlebar, scoots and lifts himself into the saddle.[23]

Although easy to ride slowly because of the inverted pendulum effect, the penny-farthing was prone to accidents. To stop, the rider presses back on the pedals while applying a spoon-shaped brake pressing the tire. The center of mass being high and not far behind the front wheel meant any sudden stop or collision with a pothole or other obstruction could send the rider over the handlebars ("taking a header" or "coming a cropper").[24] On long downhills, some riders hooked their feet over the handlebars. This made for quick descents but left no chance of stopping.[4]


The first recorded hour record was set in 1876 when Frank Dodds of England pedaled 15.8 miles (25.506 km) in an hour on a high wheeler.[25]

In 1884, Thomas Stevens rode a Columbia penny-farthing from San Francisco to Boston,[4] the first cyclist to cross the United States. In 1885–86 he continued from London through Europe, the Middle East, China, and Japan, to become the first to ride round the world.

Tremendous feats of balance were reported, including negotiating a narrow bridge parapet and riding down the US Capitol steps with the small wheel in front.[26]

In popular culture[]

The bike, with the one wheel dominating, led to riders being referred to in America as "wheelmen", a name that lived on for nearly a century in the League of American Wheelmen until renamed the League of American Bicyclists in 1994.[27] Clubs of racing cyclists wore uniforms of peaked caps, tight jackets and knee-length breeches, with leather shoes, the caps and jackets displaying the club's colors. In 1967 collectors and restorers of penny-farthings (and other early bicycles) founded the Wheelmen,[28] a non-profit organization "dedicated to keeping alive the heritage of American cycling".

The high-wheeler lives on in the gear inch units used by cyclists in English-speaking countries to describe gear ratios.[29] These are calculated by multiplying the wheel diameter in inches by the number of teeth on the front chain-wheel and dividing by the teeth on the rear sprocket. The result is the equivalent diameter of a penny-farthing wheel. A 60-inch gear, the largest practicable size for a high-wheeler, is nowadays a middle gear of a utility bicycle, while top gears on many exceed 100 inches. There was at least one 64-inch Columbia made in the mid 1880s,[30] but 60 was the largest in regular production.

In literature[]

  • In 1896, the Australian poet Banjo Paterson, author of Waltzing Matilda, wrote Mulga Bill's Bicycle, a ballad featuring the Safety bicycle. However, the poem was illustrated with a visually more interesting Penny-Farthing. "Unfortunately, the artist considered the ubiquitous safety bike too tame, remember there were thousands of them about and also women were riding them, so Mulga Bill was depicted on a penny-farthing and thus started the historical inaccuracy that persists to this day." [31]

On television[]

  • A penny-farthing was the logo of The Village in the cult 1960s television series The Prisoner, and was also featured in the show's closing titles. Co-creator and star Patrick McGoohan has stated that the bike represented slowing down the wheels of progress.

In movies[]

  • The 1941 Disney short The Nifty Nineties, set in an 1890's-style setting, features Goofy riding a penny-farthing for a short distance before falling off.
  • A modified penny-farthing was featured in the 1999 movie Wild Wild West, starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline. Kline's character had "modified" the penny-farthing to include an internal combustion engine. The so-called "powered bike" was an illusion only; it had large "training wheels," allowing Kline to sit on the bike while it was pulled by a cable. The training wheels were "painted out" (removed) from the scene by Industrial Light and Magic, which handled most of the special effects for the film.
  • In Jackass: Number Two, Ryan Dunn and Johnny Knoxville are on penny-farthing bicycles, performing the stunt known as "Bicentennial BMXing"
  • The classic Around the World in 80 Days opens with Passepartout (played by Cantinflas) riding a penny-farthing through the streets of London.

In commerce[]

  • It is also a symbol of the city of Davis, California, and Redmond, Washington.
  • A popular bar in Salinas, California, is named the Penny Farthing Tavern.
  • The Canberra Bicycle Museum features an Ordinary that can be sat on for taking pictures. Formerly at the Canberra Trademan's Union Club, the museum relocated in May 2006 to an adjacent address in Dickson, Australian Capital Territory.[32]
  • It is also a symbol of the city of Westfield, Massachusetts Public School System


  • Each February in Evandale, Tasmania, penny-farthing enthusiasts from around the world converge on the small village for a series of Penny Farthing races, including the national championship. This is the largest Penny Farthing festival in the world.
  • In 2004, British leukemia patient and charity fundraiser Lloyd Scott (43) rode a penny-farthing across the Australian outback to raise money for a charity cause. [33]


  • In November 2008, Briton Joff Summerfield completed a 22,000-mile round-the-world trip on a penny farthing. Summerfield spent two-and-a-half years cycling through 23 countries, taking in sites such as the Taj Mahal, Angkor Wat and Mt Everest. [34]

See also[]

  • Big Wheel, a tricycle
  • High wheeler, an automobile
  • Monowheel, a single-wheeled vehicle
  • Tall bike, an unusually tall bicycle
  • Unicycle, a single-wheeled vehicle
  • Velocipede, a predecessor
  • Yike Bike, an electric "mini-farthing" design


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da:Væltepeter de:Hochrad fr:Grand-bi nl:Hoge bi ja:ペニー・ファージング pl:Bicykl