Date: 1870sDesigner: James StarleyCost: Vintage ones today c. £5,000
The first vehicle to be called a bicycle, the ‘high wheeler’ is a distinctly Victorian innovation that was seen on the highways of Britain, Europe and the United States from the mid- to the late-19th Century. Although several designers and manufacturers were involved in the evolution of the ‘ordinary’ bicycle (a term that distinguished it from the later chain-driven cycles), it was James Starley of Coventry, who was to be ultimately associated with the penny farthing.The name of the machine comes from its resemblance, when seen side on, to a larger and a smaller coin - the British penny and farthing (which was worth one-quarter of an old penny.) Although the proportions of the two coins only loosely created the impression of the disparity in size between the two wheels, it was a name much admired by the British press and it stuck.
Essentially a unicycle with a rear wheel to provide stabilisation, the ‘direct-drive’ penny farthing was limited in size by the length of the rider’s legs, which could not reach the floor in normal operation. This meant that the construction typically centred around a 60in (1.5m) main wheel attached to a single-tube frame that followed its circumference for a quarter of an arc before diverging into a fork, between which was mounted the 18in (45cm) trailing wheel, where a peg was fixed to allow mounting of the cycle from the rear. Towards the front, at the crown, a moustache-shaped handlebar, which allowed clearance for the cyclist’s knees, was positioned above the front wheel’s centre.
Despite its ungainly appearance, the new bicycle was very stable. Its high centre of gravity created an inverted pendulum effect, which meant that it could be ridden very slowly. However, it was also the fastest vehicle on the road in Victorian times, with engineers at London’s Imperial College calculating that it could rack up record speeds of 7m/s (more than 15mph).
The drawback was that, while the large front wheel was able to smooth out irregularities in the road surface (despite having solid tyres), high wheelers, because of their direct-drive, required you to stop pedalling to come to a halt. This resulted in the rider or ‘wheelman’ (most riders were men) flying over the handlebars, which is where we get the expression ‘to come a cropper’.
Starley’s ‘Ariel’ was the classic penny farthing. But there were several other popular versions, including a 53-incher from the Pope Manufacturing Company and a 52-incher from Humber and Co that weighed a mere 11kg. But in a time of innovation, a design so obviously eccentric would not last long. It was Starley’s nephew James who was to bring about the demise of the high wheeler.
By 1885 James’s work on chain drives would ultimately do away with the need for both large wheels and the rider mounted above them, paving the way for the new Rover Safety Bicycle. Also, by the late 1880s John Dunlop had invented the pneumatic tyre, which meant that the smoothness of ride once only available to the high wheelers (previous velocipedes had been justly dubbed ‘boneshakers’) could now be combined with lower saddles positioned between equal-sized wheels.
By the turn of the century, demand for the penny farthing petered out and production ceased, although it was to remain a feature in track racing until the 1920s. Today they are enjoying something of a comeback, and there are a number of modern high-wheel manufacturers. You can even order a replica from Taiwan - the ‘bicycle island’ - where most high-end cycles are manufactured in the 21st Century.