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High Wheel 'penny-farthing' Bike
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© Christine Till
Penny-farthing, high wheel, high wheeler, and "ordinaries" 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 French boneshaker, until the development of the safety bicycle, in the 1880s. They were the first machines to be called "bicycles" ("two wheel").
In 1870 the first all metal machine appeared. The pedals were attached directly to the front wheel with no freewheeling mechanism. Solid rubber tires and the long spokes of the large front wheel provided a relatively smooth ride. The front wheels became large and larger - up to 1.5 m (60 in) in diameter -, as makers realized that the larger the wheel, the farther you could travel with one rotation of the pedals. You would purchase a wheel as large as your leg length would allow. These bicycles enjoyed a great popularity among young men of means, with the hey-day being the decade of the 1880s. They cost an average worker six month's pay.
Because the rider sat so high above the center of gravity, if the front wheel was stopped by a stone or rut in the road, or the sudden emergence of a dog, the entire apparatus rotated forward on its front axle, and the rider, with his legs trapped under the handlebars, was dropped unceremoniously on his head. Thus the term "taking a header" came into being.
Although the trend was short-lived, the penny-farthing became a symbol of the late Victorian era. Its popularity also coincided with the birth of cycling as a sport.
July 8th, 2013
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