The high-wheel bicycle, also known as the penny-farthing bicycle, is a pretty funny item to see! It has a very large front wheel and a tiny back wheel. They were popular in the 1880s and invented in 1871 by British engineer named James Starley.
You might ask, “WHY does this bicycle have such a large front wheel?” The answer: for speed, of course! The average person can only pedal so fast. The solution is to enlarge the wheel size, because the distance a bike moves forward is determined by the circumference of the wheel. A penny farthing bicycle typically had a front wheel circumference of 1.5 meters or 1.6 yards. This made it very difficult to mount up onto the bicycle! They usually had a foot peg above the rear wheel, so a rider had to hold onto the handlebars, push off the ground to get the bicycle moving, and then hop on.
A large wheel also helped the rider to travel over poorly-maintained roads that had dips, bumps, or holes, and made it easier to keep the bike steady. Unfortunately, these bikes were not very safe. A rider of the high-wheel bicycle was always in danger of being thrown over the handlebars and, not to mention, there were no brakes.
The website newmr.org states, “Now we have the insight into why the penny-farthing had such a big wheel, we can understand why its popularity ended very quickly. In the 1880s, people started experimenting with a link-chain connecting the pedals to the drive wheel. This meant that the tyranny of one turn of the pedal to one turn of the wheel was ended. For example, the cogs on the bike could be set so that one turn of the pedals turned the wheel twice, or three times. Eventually, gears were added, which is simply a method of giving the rider a set of choices about the ratio of pedal turns to wheel turns.” To put it simply, people invented gears so speed wasn’t dependent on the wheel’s size. Thankfully, they put on brakes as well!
So come to the Carriage Barn & Historical Museum located at Heritage Park in Santa Fe Springs and check out this strange looking bicycle. Maybe it will inspire you to take your own out for a spin while the weather is still nice.