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The Penny Farthing, High Wheel Bicycle

Updated on June 12, 2012

What is a Penny Farthing?

Penny farthing, high wheel, or high wheeler. The original bicycle is most often referred to as a Penny farthing, however, many modern day people don't even know what farthing is. I will explain, as once one knows the meaning, they can appreciate this quaint nick name. Prior to 1971 in Britain there was a different currency system than what is used today. It was quite confusing for tourists, and hard for anyone to grasp today. It consisted of shillings, half pennies, and farthings, ect. A farthing being equal to 1/4 of a penny, and a penny, in this antiqued currency, was as large as an old American silver dollar. A farthing was approximately the size of a modern penny. That is how the original bicycle got the nick name penny farthing. The front wheel was anywhere from 60-48 inches with the rear wheel being 1/4 of the large one. There were no chains and the pedals were actually attached to the front wheel. The reason for the wheel is because the larger the wheel, the further it can take you with less pedaling. The rider sits almost directly over the front axle, making this a very dangerous bike when riding over anything, the rider could easily be pitched over the top and not a simple wipe out as its over 6 feet in the air. Serious accidents frequently occurred, and in some cases caused death. Did not take much to overbalance because of the extremelt high center of gravity.

Author posing on Penny Farthing, but declined to actually go for a ride
Author posing on Penny Farthing, but declined to actually go for a ride

Original Penny Farthing from 1870

This photo was shot on an original, un-restored high wheeler. It offers a clear view of the mounting stud just above the rear wheel. The front wheel was approximately 60 inches and the riders head was almost 7 feet in the air.

Classic and Elegant looking

The penny farthing is a striking bike; to try to ride one can be a frightening experience. The handlebars are placed low, forcing the rider to remain upright. Its almost impossible to control speed with the peddles continually moving due to their attachment to the front wheel. There is a small stud located slightly above the back tire that the rider must quickly take a running step up to mount this high wheel bike. The sensation is one that can challenge any modern day athlete.


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    • profile image

      Mico 5 years ago

      Yes, this bike seems scary to me too.

    • Skarlet profile image

      Skarlet 5 years ago from California

      Thank you Eric,

      This is one scary bike. I can't believe they had the guts to ride these. Before I saw the bike I wanted to ride it because I had always seen old pictures of them, and when I first saw it sitting on blocks of wood for stabilization in this photo shoot, I said, "no way."

    • Eric Calderwood profile image

      Eric Calderwood 5 years ago from USA

      Very nice looking old bikes. I doubt I will ever try to ride one though. Amazing how dangerous some old forms of entertainment were. Of course, nowadays we have extreme sports, so I guess the allure of danger has not left us even with safer forms of vehicles.