Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

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James Starley: Giant Penny Farthing

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1874. Starley's original Giant Ordinary (Penny-Farthing) with tangent spoke wheels. On display at the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu.
B. Lord Montagu, in the saddle. Taken from a postcard.
Bill Silvester’s Copy.
Spoke arrangement.
Bill Silvester’s humour!

James Starley, the ‘ Father of the Cycle Industry’ invented in the early 1870’s the tangent wheel where the spokes crossed each other as against what was the ‘norm’ at the time, the familiar radial method of assembling a wheel. Rival cycle makers were anti this invention and reluctant to adopt this new method of lacing the wheel, suggesting that it could not be possibly stronger than the radial spoke method, some were convinced that the cross spoke method would make the wheel rim buckle, thus causing accidents.. Media at the time added to the controversy by publishing articles describing the different wheel building methods as the ‘Battle of the Wheel’

Starley declined to be drawn into the controversy and set about silencing his critics once and for all by designing and making a ‘Giant’ Ordinary (Penny-Farthing), he did in fact make two identical machines. Today one is on display at the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu and the other went to the USA to be demonstrated at the Philadelphia Cycle Show. This machine has not survived.

The front wheel measured 78 inches in diameter and the rider (it was meant to be ridden but only for demonstration purposes) was required to use several steps/mounting points located on the backbone and negotiate a second small pair of handlebars to finally reach the saddle.

The method Starley invented to lace the number of spokes into the large wheel was the same as that that he used on his Coventry Rotary Tricycle and comprised of a steel dowel/pin positioned through the faces of the wheel hubs onto which each side he located a spoke.

A treadle action enabled the average size rider to propel the machine and once finished Starley’s son’s, William and John, in secret became proficient in mounting and riding the Giant.

It was kept under-wraps until the opening day of the 1876 Leamington Spa Cycle Show, at which most of the UK’s cycle manufacturers displayed their latest model. In the Show programme the Giant was listed as the ‘Xtraordinary’ creating considerable interest and even more astonishment when wheeled out. Then to the amazement of everyone watching, actually ridden. This demonstration soon quashed further contention as to the strength of a tangential built wheel and was quickly adopted by most cycle manufacturers although Thomas Humber refused to adopt the tangential method during his life time.

Two examples can be seen in the UK, the original at Beaulieu and an exact copy at the Knutsford Penny Farthing Museum, Knutsford, Cheshire.

Given permission by Lord Montagu, the late Mr Bill Silvester, of Waterlooville, Hants an enthusiastic supporter of James Starley’s genius, climbed daily a ladder placed against the original machine hanging against the wall of the National Motor Museum and then carefully measured and recorded every detail. Mr Silvester then set about the manufacture of the ‘Copy’ making every single component himself other than the rubber tyre. [1]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Tony Pickering, Leicester