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What Was Unusual About the Penny Farthing Bicycle? Weird or Genius Design?

Written by Gary Johnson / Fact checked by Henry Speciale

what was unusual about the penny farthing bicycle

If you haven’t heard about the penny farthing wheel before, one thing we can say is that the ‘p’ in penny definitely stands for peculiar.

What was unusual about the penny farthing bicycle, you ask?

Well, this is a bike with big front wheel. And when I say big, the front wheel is at least three times the size of the back wheel!

Not exactly the most practical contraption on planet earth, but we can’t really deny that it’s one bizarre-looking thing.

What is a Penny Farthing? What Was Unusual About It?


The penny farthing was undoubtedly an original and creative design for its time. It was a bicycle that was quite popular in the late 80s.

Although old fashioned, this quirky contraption is still around, even having a modern penny farthings version.

But many curiosities surround this large wheel bicycle, and here are some things you may want to know.

#1 Unique Name


First of all, the name penny farthing was derived from coins called penny and farthing. If you know these two coins, then you might’ve guessed the connection to the bicycle.

The penny is a bigger coin than the farthing. Sounds similar to something, right?

Just like the front wheel and back wheel of the penny farthing, the coins it was named after also have a considerable size difference.

#2 Unusual Design but Faster Travel Time


Penny-farthings were vehicles unique to the late 19th century. To use them, the rider sat astride a large wheel with a smaller wheel to support behind. 

Back in the day, bicycles didn’t use gears, so to make the vehicle faster, the wheel needed to be bigger. It needed to be able to carry a rider over hills and still roll even with holes and bumps in the road.

This bike with big front wheel was able to go fast due to the front wheel’s large distance of rotation- which is either very smart or very stupid, depending on your opinion of bicycles in general.

And if you think about it, a bike with one big wheel of at least 52 inches can be the same as having 52 gears on a two-wheeler. Imagine the speed of that.

#3 No Brakes

The technology behind the penny farthing is the combination of a steel frame, ball bearings, and rubber tires with wire spokes. There is no gear on this bike.

Using a braking system called fixie or a fixed wheel bike, the rider has to apply force and pedal backward to slow down the bike and eventually put it to a stop.

In addition, modern bikes often have a chain drive to allow for higher speeds without demanding much pedaling effort. However, a penny farthing doesn’t have this component, which is why its front wheel is so big.

If we are talking facts, then this bike with one big wheel is very dangerous because you can fall headfirst or backwards.

How Do You Get Onto a Penny Farthing Bike?

To get on a penny farthing, you must carefully do the following steps:


  • Step 1: Move behind the penny farthing and hold onto the handlebar with both hands.
  • Step 2: Place one of your feet – preferably the nondominant one – on the lower step.
  • Step 3: Slightly push the bike forward with your other foot. At this point, step on the higher step and propel your body upwards. Note: your feet must stay behind the wheel at all times to avoid a collision when mounting and dismounting.
  • Step 4: Once you have propelled your body, swiftly slide on the saddle and place both your feet on the pedals.
  • Step 5: Once you’re seated securely, start biking.

Once you get the hang of it, mounting a penny farthing is not that hard.

How to Ride a Penny Farthing?

Once you are able to mount your penny farthing by following the directions above, riding it is smooth sailing. You just have to keep on pedaling.

But you must keep in mind that making sharp turns is not advisable when riding this bicycle. One reason is the large front wheel could lose stability and send you flying if it meets an obstacle you couldn’t avoid.

Making a sharp turn may also be awkward for your legs, and there is a high possibility that you can hit the wheel with your calves.


Why Was The Penny Farthing So Popular?

The penny farthing bicycle was one of the first bicycles ever designed, and it’s still one of the most popular among cycling enthusiasts. Why? Because it’s ingenious!

Due to its expensive price from the labor and material cost, this one-of-a-kind vehicle became a hot topic among wealthy noblemen, skyrocketing its worth to the roof.

I mean, who doesn’t want to get into the trend, especially if that something is amusing and fun at the same time?

In terms of speed and shock absorption, penny farthings were also ahead of their time.

Why Was The Penny Farthing So Tall?

This bike with big front wheel became tall due to the front wheel itself.

In the past, the roads were not paved like today, so there were a lot of gaps, holes, and rocks on the path. The big wheel made it possible for riders to have a comfortable and smoother ride, unlike small-wheeled bikes commonly known as bone-shakers.

When Was The Penny Farthing Invented? Who Invented It?

Penny-farthing bicycles were first introduced in the 1870s – the Victorian Era.

A Frenchman named Eugène Meyer first invented a high-wheeled bicycle that was later known as the penny farthing.

As the unique vehicle gained popularity, English developments were brought in by J. K. Starley in 1871. He created his own version of the penny farthing called ‘Ariel’ and added upgrades such as spokes and mounting steps.

Why Was The Penny Farthing Bicycle Invented?

Before the penny farthing, if you scour through the history of bikes, there were a few other inventions like the hobby horse and the boneshaker. Unfortunately, due to the bad road conditions during that period, these early bicycles were uncomfortable to ride and they just didn’t work.

This is why high-wheelers were developed and popularised.


What was unusual about the penny farthing bicycle? Hopefully, you now know the answer to this question.

The popularity brought by this contraption also coincided with the birth of cycling as a sport.

Although the penny farthing was short-lived, this peculiar bike became a symbol of the late Victorian era, as seen in old pictures and drawings, and paved the way for the bicycle industry.

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