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The Penny Farthing Bicycle

The penny farthing was invented in the 19th century. It received its odd name as a result of the different sizes of its wheels – the front wheel was large and related to the penny, while the back wheel, the “farthing”, was significantly smaller, giving the bicycle its odd front-heavy appearance.

The concept was that the large front wheel would enable the cyclist to ride at a high speed, as the bicycle would travel a long distance for every single rotation of the pedals. The big wheel was also intended to provide improved shock absorption.

It is now generally accepted that the penny farthing had its origins in France in the 1860s, although British inventor James Starley has been described as the “father of the cycle industry”, having been involved in its continued development.

Penny-Farthing Bicycle

© hodagmedia / Adobe Stock

Penny farthing invention

Commonly ridden in the 1860s, the velocipede (nicknamed the “boneshaker”) was manufactured in France by the Michaex Company. Earlier bicycles had been made of wood, but in around 1865, manufacturers started making them from metal.

It was called the boneshaker for a good reason – it was very uncomfortable for the cyclist! It had solid tyres, which meant the rider was bounced around, especially on cobbled streets. Weighing around 60 lbs, it was unlike modern cycles, as its pedals were attached to the front wheel.

Eugène Meyer, an inventor who was born in Alsace and lived in Paris, created the new, high-level bicycle, which became known as the penny farthing, in 1869.

He revolutionised cycle manufacturing, introducing innovations such as solid rubber tyres, ball bearings and hollow steel frames. These modernisations soon became standard across the industry. He entered races on his own bicycles to promote them, and came 10th in the 1869 Paris to Rouen race.

English developments

British cyclist James Moore rode Meyer’s high-wheeled penny farthing in August 1870 at the Midland Counties Championship in Wolverhampton – the first time it had been seen across the Channel.

English inventor Starley was responsible for making the design popular in Britain. He went on to create his own model, which he called Ariel. Born in Albourne, Sussex, Starley was one of the most successful and innovative cycle-builders in history.

Adding to Meyer’s inventions, Starley came up with the different gears and the bicycle chain drive. He had bought a sewing machine factory (Coventry Sewing Machine Company) with his business partner Josiah Turner in 1861.

They diversified into making bicycles after Turner’s nephew took one of the French boneshakers to the factory in the late 1860s. Starley had always mended sewing machines and had learned how to fix and improve mechanisms, so he turned his skills to making penny farthings instead.

Their Ariel model had a metal frame and wire-spoked wheels, which were patented in 1874. Starley also devised chain-driven and lever-driven tricycles for women and couples to ride.

Pneumatic tyres

Inventor William Thomson, of Stonehaven, Scotland, had patented the original pneumatic tyre as early as 1845, when he was only 23. However, it wasn’t a commercial success and his idea was forgotten.

He invented many innovative items, including elastic belts, seats and supports, the rotary steam engine and the hydraulic dry dock, to name but a few. Despite leaving school at 14, Thomson had been something of a child genius, teaching himself chemistry, mathematics and astronomy. He also learned about electricity, ending up working for a civil engineering firm.

It wasn’t until 1886, 41 years after Thomson’s tyre patent, that another Scot, John Boyd Dunlop, reinvented rubber tyres. He demonstrated their efficiency at providing a less bumpy bicycle ride in races in 1889.

The Dunlop Pneumatic Tyre Co was opened by Dublin-born Harvey du Cros, who also bought other patents to improve Dunlop’s design further. He made the tyre detachable to carry out more effective puncture repairs. In the early 1890s, cycle manufacturers largely adopted pneumatic tyres and they soon became standard equipment.

The penny farthing became something of a status symbol of the late Victorian era and wasn’t something the working classes would generally ride. Its popularity coincided with the growth of cycling as a competitive sport.

20th century

Bicycles had lights as early as 1817, when they were an elaborate lantern, made from metal with candles enclosed inside. These were replaced with small oil lamps, followed by acetylene-gas lamps in the 1890s. In the United States, battery-operated bicycle lamps were introduced at around the same time. However, they were very costly and bumpy roads damaged the bulbs’ filaments and the batteries beyond repair.

Richard Weber, a mechanic in Leipzig, patented the idea of a small generator, powered by the bicycle wheels, to light an electric bulb. The idea didn’t become commercially viable until 1911, when tungsten filaments were invented that were immune to jolts. Now, bicycle dynamos are mass produced in vast quantities.

The penny farthing bicycle remained popular into the early 20th century among enthusiasts, even though production had stopped at the turn of the century because it was deemed dangerous.

If the wheel struck bumps in the road, it was likely the rider would be thrown forward from a great height. This proved fatal numerous times when he landed on his head. Cyclists going down a steep hill on a penny farthing would often put their feet on the handlebars, so that if they were thrown off, they would hopefully land feet-first.

In the 1920s, penny farthing bicycles were used for men’s races, including the Challenge Cup, held around a track in Herne Hill, London. The winner of the one-mile “dash” race was Mr CJ Bowtle, who had won other cycling races of the era too.

The bikes were so tall that the competitors couldn’t mount them unaided and they had to be supported on the starting line to stop them from falling over! This was the swansong of the penny farthing.

Bicycles today

The bicycle has continued to develop over the past century into the streamlined models we know today. The range of tyres for today’s cycles is enormous – they have come a long way since the early days and tyres used on our roads need to “multitask”.

With a challenging role, tyres must be sturdy enough to resist punctures, while remaining light and gripping the road well. They must also provide rider-comfort and last a long time to be cost-effective.

Modern bicycles rely on tube bending to create the lightweight, yet tough frame. In the past, bicycle frames were made of wood, but metal is a more durable, lightweight material that is much more suitable.

Pipecraft’s range of tube and pipe bending machines provides solutions for a comprehensive range of tube bending and manipulation requirements, from 2.0mm o.d. to 76.1mm o.d., in most wall thicknesses and also in solid bar.

Contact us by email at sales@pipecraft.co.uk or give us a call on 01903 766778 to find out more about our professional services.

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