Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 136,123 pages of information and 218,941 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.


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1895. Pneumatic tyred geared front driver cycle. Exhibit at the Scottish Cycle Museum.

The ordinary, high wheel or penny-farthing was the first true bicycle with which actual speed and distance could be achieved in a practical manner. Given the absence of a gearing system, larger and larger wheels were built with the intention of increasing speed and ultimately culminating in the classically over-sized penny-farthing wheel, which measured 1.5m (60") in diameter. The origin of the bicycle's name refers to the era's penny and farthing coins; the size of the former being quite large and the latter much smaller. Two of such coins placed next to one another resembled the side view of the bicycle.

1869 The first high wheel bicycle was built by Frenchman Eugene Meyer, who was already famous in England at the time.

1871 The Penny Farthing was invented in 1871 by James Starley. [1]

1878 Albert Pope began manufacturing the Columbia bicycle just outside of Boston, that their nearly two decade-long heyday in America began. Although the trend was relatively short-lived, the penny-farthing bicycle has since become a prominent historical symbol of the late Victorian era. Its brief popularity also coincided with the birth of cycling as a sport.

The ordinary is a direct-drive bicycle, meaning that the cranks and pedals are affixed directly to the hub. Instead of using a relatively complex and heavy gear system to multiply the revolutions of the pedals, the driven wheel was enlarged to its maximum radius—up to a length close to the rider's inseam—to increase the maximum speed. This shifted the position of the rider upward, placing him nearly on top of the wheel. This meant that the rider's feet could not reach the ground while riding, making it effectively little more than a unicycle with an extra wheel for stability.

The frame is a single tube following the circumference of the front wheel for around 1/4 arc, then diverting at a tangent to a fork in which is mounted a small trailing wheel. A mounting peg is attached above the rear wheel. The front wheel is mounted in a rigid fork with little if any trail. A spoon brake is usually fitted on the fork crown, operated by a lever from one of the handlebars. The bars are usually moustache shaped, dropping down from the level of the headset. The saddle mounts on the frame somewhat less than 0.5m (18") behind the headset.

Mounting a wheel is a process requiring some skill. One foot is placed on a small peg on the frame above the back wheel. The rider then grasps the handlebar, scoots using the other foot, and when sufficient speed has been gained to effect balance, lifts himself into the saddle.

Although very stable because of the pendulum effect, the penny-farthing was notoriously prone to accidents. In order to slow and stop a high wheel, as with a fixed gear bicycle, the rider applies a small amount of back pressure on the pedals while continuing forwards, augmented by use of a spoon-shaped brake pressing on the tire. The centre of mass being both high and not far behind the contact point of the front wheel meant that any attempt to stop suddenly, or any collision with a large pothole or other obstruction, would be likely to send him flying over the handle bars (known as "taking a header" or "coming a cropper"). On long downhill stretches it was recommended that riders take their feet off the pedals and hook them over the handlebars, so that in case of a crash they would land (hopefully) on their feet. This made for quick descents but left almost no chance of stopping should the need arise.

Early manufacturers in the UK were Excelsior, Ariel and James.

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