Why don't we ride penny farthings anymore?

Didn’t want to hijack the other thread about wheel size. Just wondering what the actual, practical reasons for not riding penny farthings were. Is it just the convenience of not having eight-foot-tall bike lockers? Or is it harder to ride on them? Or what?

  1. I understand it’s not trivial to mount and ride them.

  2. The whole point of the big wheel is to give you a favorable “gear ratio”. But we do that now with combinations of front and rear gears and derailleurs. With the “high wheel” bicycle, you can’t shift gears.

  3. Would you really want to try to pedal one of those monsters uphill?

  4. But it [would be cool to ride one with the canopy on top a la The Prisoner. Just watch out for Rover.

A penny farthing bicycle is direct-drive, unlike a modern safety bicycle with a front chainring and rear sprockets. A number of disadvantages present themselves. First, your maximum gear ratio is limited by your leg length - that’s why little kids on trikes can’t hit 30 mph (unless it’s off the side of a building). Second, there’s no possibility of a gear-change, you are stuck with this one gear which may not be well-suited to that steep hill you’re trying to climb. Third, you can’t freewheel with your feet on the pedals, which means that coming down that steep hill is kind of a drag. Fourth, it’s neither a mechanically nor aerodynamically efficient pedaling position. As far as ease of riding, if you can balance on a regular bike, riding a high-wheeler should not be much of an issue (from personal experience).

Well, think about it. Big honking wheel. So it weighs a lot. Requires a huge tire and tube.

The rider is sitting about four feet up, so it’s inherently a lot less safe to fall off of. I have no idea how you put your feet down while waiting for a light to change, but it doesn’t look easy.
Not to mention that the penny farthing was eliminated when the Brits switched to a decimal currency.

The first modern-style bicycles with geared chain drive were touted as ‘safety’ bikes. This was in part due to being closer to the ground, but mainly because the rider of a PF is very prone to going over the handlebars should it hit an obstruction. Despite the quaint image we now have of the penny farthing, at the time they were the province of the ‘hard men’ of cycling.

I got to ride one in a parade for our local bike shop.
It took some getting used to getting up on.
If you had to stop suddenly it was a long way to the ground.
Taking sharp corners meant rubbing a turning wheel against the inside of your thigh, not fun.

Nitpick: Most of them didn’t have tubes - or any sort of pneumatic tire. Just a solid rubber tire on a metal rim.

In fact that’s one reason penny-farthings were popular in the 19th century but not anymore. Before the invention of the pneumatic tire, one way to make a bike wheel roll more smoothly and easily was to make the wheel bigger. With pneumatic tires, even 16-inch wheels provide perfectly adequate comfort and efficiency.

And penny-farthings are difficult to ride, from my very limited experience. I had a friend with a 52-inch bike and he let me try it out for about 5 minutes, but I couldn’t do it. Maybe it’s easier if you start out with a smaller one.

I believe going over the handlebars of a penny-farthing was called a “header”.

      • You can still buy one, if you really want one. The ones I’ve seen were constructed in the"replica" fashion, with heavy small-diameter steel frame tubing and THICK steel spokes. And yes–solid rubber tires, since nobody makes pneumatic tires that diameter. I’ve not ridden one, but the ones I have seen up close weighed quite a lot.

One word: Brakes.

You may go about your business.

A few months ago I actually saw one strapped to the back of a minivan on the highway. If my camera wasn’t busted, I would have gotten a picture. :mad:

Another name for it was “boneshaker.” That explains a lot.

Not true. This was the name given to a different type of early bike picture

This was in use before the penny farthing .

at the time it was known as an “ordinary”. The penny-farthing name didn’t come in until it was already obsolete.

The biggest problem I have with the design is the “going over the handlebars” issue. You are so high up and so close to the front axle that braking is difficult.

When you are on a standard bicycle (i.e. with two equal size wheels, like Lance Armstrong rides) your center of mass is well behind the front axle, so you can decelerate ad a decent rate without going over the handlebars.

When you are on a penny-farthing you can’t decelerate very well because your CM is above and very close to the front axle.

As you are slowing down, it’s as if you are standing still facing down a hill - if the hill is too steep, you go over the bars. If you imagine this hill is steep enough to put your CM in front of the front axle, over you go. You can see that such a hill is steeper for a standard bicycle than for a penny-farthing.

I doubt any of us have a bicycle that nice. Nor do we have a chase team with extra ones in case we get a flat tire. :slight_smile:

Going over the bars and landing on the head was also known as doing a ‘right royal purler’.

Actually, the penny farthing, or ordinary, was very well suited to the roads of the time, that large wheel went over the cobbles well and absorbed a lot of the bumps, and having such a large wheel meant that it stored a lot of gyroscopic forces, you could ride exceedingly slow on them.

Despite having such a large front wheel, the actual gearing on them is quite low, getting up steep hills isn’t all that hard, getting down them is not quite so much fun as its fixed direct drive.

I have seen a version made around the turn of the last century made for a child that had a pair of cranks(not connected to each other) on either side of the front forks and each has its own chain and spocket arragement to the front hub.
Obviously it isn’t as tall as the full size thing, but the drive arrangement show how it could have been possible to ride a machine with extremely large wheels compared to the riders own height.

That was tried with adult bike, too. The chains and sprockets allowed them to bring the front wheel diameter down to “only” four feet. I suppose they didn’t make it smaller because then it wouldn’t look like what people expected a bicycle to look like.

Even before pneumatic tires were introduced, Rover’s safety bicycles (two equal-sized wheels) were so much faster and more stable than the ordinaries that, IIRC, an early one took a full hour off the record for riding 100 miles.

A spot of trivia here. The Polish word for bicycle is rower (pronounced rover). I imagine because Rover produced the the first modern style bike , it became the generic name in Poland.

Why don’t you start a trend? Take a risk! Become a leader in bicycle fashion! I’ll ride one if you will…