What was unusual about the penny-farthing bicycle?

Let’s go back in time to find out what was unusual about the penny farthing bicycle. Needless to say, this will be far from a normal feature we do on Cyced, but an exceedingly interesting one.

This magnificent machine was invented in the 1800s and still turns heads today. One wheel large, the other small, traversing A to B.

What is a penny farthing?

Penny farthings feature a large front wheel, above which the handle bars, seat and pedals are positioned, and a smaller rear wheel.

The size of the front wheel allowed for travelling at higher speeds, due to the increased distance for each rotation of the pedals, and greater shock absorption. The rear wheel would act as a stabiliser.


Who invented the first penny farthing?

The penny farthing was produced by English inventor James Starley around the year 1870. However, it was inspired by the design of the high-wheeler bicycle from the French inventor Eugène Meyer in 1869.

Meyer was also the first to patent the wire-spoke tension wheel and is widely considered the father of the penny farthing.

What was unusual about the penny farthing bicycle?

Here are a few more facts and titbits about what made the penny farthing unusual:

It’s named after coins

The name comes from two coins from the era. Guess what they are? The farthing (the small wheel) and the penny (the big wheel). Makes sense.

They were faster than traditional bicycles of the time

The large wheel on the front allowed for higher speeds. In those days, cranks were attached directly to a bike’s front wheel, meaning the penny farthings’ 52-inch wheel was equivalent to having 52 gears.

As dangerous as they were unusual

Penny farthings was known to be dangerous. Because seats were positioned so high up from the ground, if the front wheel caught any ruts in the ground riders would be thrown over the handlebars.

Attempts were made to change the penny farthing handlebars, but these resulted in throwing riders backwards instead. Don’t let that put you off though. If you ever get a chance to test the unusual penny farthing bike, give it a whirl.

They’re still ridden today

There is an unusual penny farthing cycling club that host events down in the south of the UK. They have club training and bicycle polo as well as having gone on the velodrome at Lee Valley. I hope they were able to get to track speed…

The inventor’s nephew created the modern bicycle

The inventor’s own family member (John Kemp Starley) cannibalised the penny farthing and invented the Rover Safety Cycle. His intent was not outdo his uncle, but rather to address the numerous safety issues with the former’s design.

This bike’s seat was a lot lower with the front wheel also being smaller, but still bigger than the rear side. Who said you couldn’t reinvent the wheel?

Around the world in 80… wheels?

Joff Summerfield completed a world tour on the unusual penny farthing bicycle back in 2006. An amazing feat of 23,000 miles, which is mind blowing effort even if ridden on a standard bike.

Penny farthings had no breaks

This is probably why so many went over head first when speeding downhill. Instead of traditional breaks, it relied on what we understand as the braking system of a fixie ( or a fixed wheel bicycle).

A fixie requires the rider to apply pressure to their heel to slow the bike pedalling down. What you’d find on a track bike at a velodrome.

Women did not ride them

Back in the 1880s, women didn’t tend to ride them because of their long dresses. It was very much a man’s bicycle, which has obviously changed in modern era. Instead women rode bike’s the three wheeled velocipede.

How do you get onto a penny farthing bike?

Well that’s a very good question.

What you can’t see on the images is a foot-peg above the rear wheel. This acts as a step up to the unusually big wheel, where the saddle is.

It’s around 6 inches up, but just jumping up won’t work unless you give it a bit of momentum.

Before getting seated, you need to push the penny farthing bicycle forwards. It can be tricky at first and requires a lot of practice.


What is unusual about the penny farthing bicycle?

Pretty much everything! It’s a bizarre Victorian creation that takes some doing to even get on in the first place. And once you manage that you’ve got to take it very carefully so not to go head first over the handlebars.

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