The Penny Farthing – Why?

When people who are not from the UK are told: Think of an iconic British bicycle, they are immediately reminded of the Penny Farthing. A bicycle that became legend due to its incredibly strange design, it’s odd to think that the Penny Farthing is probably more popular now than when it was first designed. So why was it designed?

The father of the Farthing
In 1870, James Starley began to produce bicycles of the same design as the French bicycle boneshaker, but with larger front wheels. The Penny Farthing was created soon after, the name given to it due to its resemblance in appearance to a penny placed next to a farthing; the currency of the era. It has since become a symbol of the Victorian Era, despite its lack of success and short life.

Not so much Hot Wheels as Strange Wheels
Before the invention of the wheel chain, the rider had to either kick himself along to move or have the pedals stuck to the wheel axle. The wheel only turns as fast as the pedals can so in order to get any speed you would have to make the wheel bigger. And because of the way human anatomy works, front wheel drive is more effective than rear wheel drive.  Therefore it made more sense to have a bigger front wheel, although it did make riding up hills dangerous!

Popular for comfort
The larger wheel made bumpy roads, stones and cobblestones easier to ride across. Because of how common rough and unpaved roads were in the Victorian era, the Penny Farthing became a popular mode of transport. The handlebars were normally fashioned in a moustache shape, to allow room for the rider’s knees, and Penny Farthings were known to be incredibly sturdy.

When cyclist Thomas Stevens cycled around the world in 1884 (he finished the tour, after a few detours, in 1887) he rode on a Penny Farthing, and only reported one problem, which was when the front wheel was damaged after it was confiscated by the military.

Dangerous Riding
Though it seemed the Penny Farthing was good for comfort riding, there were still several health risks associated with the bicycle. Because the cyclist sits nearly over the front axle, when the rider breaks suddenly, or hits particularly large rocks or ruts, the rider could be pitched forward off the bicycle. This was known as ‘a header’, as they would fall head first.

To reduce the likelihood of headers, many cyclists travelling downhill would place their feet over the handlebars, so that if they were pitched off, they would go feet first instead of head first. Headers were quite common, and sometimes the injuries were so severe that it caused the death of the rider.

It seems that, like with every invention, trial and error was used to create the modern bikes we use without thought today. So although the Penny Farthing looks like really strange, with several disadvantages to its use (such as death!), it still contributed in some way to shaping the modern cycling industry.

Annie Cranston is a cycling enthusiast with a keen interest in the history of the bicycle. She has contributed this article on behalf of Summit Different, the online store for cycling jerseys with a difference for both men and women

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