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. They were the first machines to be called ‘bicycles’.
Although they are now most commonly known as “penny-farthings”, this term was probably not used until they were nearly outdated; the first recorded print reference is 1891 in Bicycling News. 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. For most of their reign, 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, and this term or Hi-wheel (and variants) is preferred by many modern enthusiasts.
Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum in Norwalk, Connecticut had their ice cream social on Sunday, June 22, 2014. Reminiscent of the days long, long ago, so many women were dressed in their Victorian day dresses, men in top hats, and James and his penny-Farthing.
What a strange name for this mode of transportation from the late 19th century. Although the trend was short-lived, the penny-farthing became a symbol of the late Victorian era. I asked James to demonstrate the penny-farthing for me. He had to run next to it in order to get on. Then he mounted it while running, drove around, came back and dismounted, sliding off over the small wheel. Strange, but it didn’t seem too difficult, as long as you don’t ask me to do it. He told me he rides every weekend, and that he belongs to an antique bicycle club called the “Wheelmen.”
In 1888, when John Dunlop re-invented 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. 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.
Have you ever tried to ride a penny-farthing?