Bicycling Beginnings- The Penny-Farthing

Remember, the roads in the late 1800’s were not the smooth bike paths we have to ride on now, but that didn’t stop people from riding bikes—let alone stop them from riding one of the more dangerous designs for a bicycle in history. Because the pedals on the Boneshaker were attached to the front wheel hub, the only way to increase speed was making the front wheel larger, and more dangerous. But speed and efficiency is more important than safety. After all, people had important appointments to get to back then too. Like getting their blood sucked out by leeches applied by a doctor.

An "Ordinary Bicycle" as they were sometimes called; they were also known as the Penny-Farthing.

An “Ordinary Bicycle” as they were sometimes called; they were also known as the Penny-Farthing.

Called the “Penny-Farthing,” because the difference in size of the coins matched the difference of the wheels, this bicycle was incredibly popular, and also shockingly dangerous. If you were to design a bike to reduce the safety of the rider as much as possible, chances are you’d arrive at something similar to the Penny-Farthing.

Like the Boneshaker, the Penny-Farthing kept the pedals attached to the front wheel. This meant sharp turns were not only difficult, but nearly impossible. And with front wheels up to five feet in diameter, the center of mass could be even higher than that. And with the center of mass so high, any bump in the road could lead to a life ending crash.

Going over the handlebars may make the crashes sound too gentle. Because of the placement of the handlebars in relation to the pedals, when the front wheel hit a divot or something else to stop its forward momentum, the rider would more likely topple forward with the bike as his or her knees got stuck beneath the handlebars. Breaking both wrists in an attempt to cushion the fall was not uncommon, and “taking a header” could easily lead to death.

Notice it is the men on big wheels, risking their lives for amusement. I suppose some things remain constant. Idiots.

Notice it is the men on big wheels, risking their lives for amusement. I suppose some things remain constant. Morons.

Let’s pause here for a moment and ponder the differences just a hundred and thirty years can make. Sure, we have to bike with many more cars going much faster, but I’ll happily today’s riding conditions over the risks of the late 1800’s. No helmets were worn, no brakes were in use, and there was a real chance that a small, poorly place pebble could kill you. Your front wheel was almost as tall as you, and as you rode about, you were placed over the ground at about the same height as a small diving board.

Because of the safety concerns, this bike was mainly ridden, with few exceptions, by young men—consistently the stupidest demographic. In order to bring in more riders, a safer option was required and so came the use of the chain. But for ten years, the Penny-Farthing was the best option, with increased speeds outweighing the increased risk of death. If I lived back then I think I’d walk, and accept that sometimes I’d be late.

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