Bicycle HistoryHigh Wheel or Penny-Farthing

High Wheel or Penny-Farthing

The work principle of "running machine" or balance bike, invented by Karl Drais, consisted in impetus given by foot, which was rather inefficient method of travelling. It was only natural to equip the vehicle with foot-operated pedals. It was necessary to attach pedals to the front wheel, but that was not practical for movement. Pedalling at normal pace resulted in only low speed, which in turn reduced riding stability – it is easier to maintain balance while riding at high speed than at low speed.

This problem was solved around 1870 by significantly increasing the size of the front wheel and reducing the size of the rear wheel. That way the pedals were still attached to the front wheel, and the pedalling speed kept the rider from tipping over.

Thus, one of the most common bicycle types of the late 19th century came to life –  penny-farthing or high wheel (Hochrad in German). Unlike balance bike (and other bike predecessors), it usually had rubber tyres (but not yet pneumatic).

Penny-farthing was, by the way, the first bicycle type produced en masse. This was the start of first bicycle factories, and their production volume yielded hundreds and thousands.

According to present knowledge there were no penny-farthings made in Estonia. The closest factory − Leutner (in Latvian also known as Leitner) or Rossia factory – was in Riga. However, dozens of such vehicles made their way to Estonia.

Penny-farthing allowed making rather long and steady trips on paved roads, but it was still an incomplete solution. The front wheel of penny-farthing was usually very tall; the biker sat rather high up, mounting and dismounting the bike was quite a complicated process and could result in a nasty fall. It was particularly critical in situations that required quick response (e.g. stopping in dense traffic or because of other sudden obstacle). Thus, further development was required to improve its stability.