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Penny-farthing, high wheel, high wheeler, Man slicer and ordinary are all terms used to describe a type of bicycle with a large front wheel and a much smaller rear wheel that was popular after the boneshaker, until the development of the safety bicycle, in the 1880s. They were the first machines to be called "bicycles".
Although they are now most commonly known as "penny-farthings", this term was probably not used until they were nearly outdated; the first recorded print reference is 1891 in Bicycling News. It comes from the British penny and farthing coins, one much larger than the other, so that the side view resembles a penny leading a farthing. For most of their reign, they were simply known as "bicycles". In the late 1890s, the retronym "ordinary" began to be used, to distinguish them from the emerging safety bicycles, and this term or Hi-wheel (and variants) is preferred by many modern enthusiasts.
About 1870, James Starley, described as the father of the bicycle industry, and others began producing bicycles based on the French boneshaker but with front wheels of increasing size, because larger front wheels, up to 1.5 m (60 in) in diameter, enabled higher speeds on bicycles limited to direct drive. In 1878, Albert Pope began manufacturing the Columbia bicycle outside of Boston, starting their two-decade heyday in America.
Frenchman Eugene Meyer is now regarded as the father of the High Bicycle by the International Cycling History Conference in place of James Starley. Meyer patented a wire-spoke tension wheel with individually adjustable spokes in 1869. They were called "spider" wheels in Britain when introduced there. Meyer produced a classic high bicycle design until the 1880s.
James Starley in Coventry added the tangent spokes and the mounting step to his famous bicycle named "Ariel." He is regarded as the father of the British cycling industry. Ball bearings, solid rubber tires and hollow-section steel frames became standard, reducing weight and making the ride much smoother.
Penny-farthing bicycles are dangerous due to the risk of headers. Makers developed "moustache" handlebars, allowing the rider's knees to clear them, "Whatton" handlebars, that wrapped around behind the legs, and ultimately (though too late, after the Starley safety bike), with the 1889 American Eagle and Star, the position of big and small wheel was reversed. This prevented headers, but left the danger of being thrown backwards when riding uphill. Other attempts included moving the seat rearward and driving the wheel by levers or treadles, as in the Xtraordinary or Facile, or gears, by chain as in the Kangaroo or at the hub in the Crypto; another option was to move the seat well back, as in the Rational.
The penny-farthing used a larger wheel than the velocipede, thus giving higher speed on all but steep hills. In addition, the large wheel rolled more readily over cobbles, stones, ruts, and so on. Since rough-paved and unpaved roads were more common than smooth roads, the increase in rider comfort was significant.
The high riding position might seem daunting, but mounting could be learned on a lower velocipede. Once mastered, a high wheeler can be mounted and dismounted easily on flat ground and some hills. In some rare cases penny-farthings can reach 10 feet in height and must be mounted via ladders.
An important and unfortunate attribute of the penny-farthing is that the rider sits high and nearly over the front axle. When the wheel strikes rocks and ruts, or under hard braking, the rider can be pitched forward off the bicycle head-first, called "taking a header" or simply "a header". Headers were relatively common, and a significant hazard: riders sometimes died from headers. Riders coasting down hills often took their feet off the pedals and put them over the tops of the handlebars, so they would be pitched off feet-first instead of head-first.
Penny-farthing bicycles often used similar materials and construction as earlier velocipedes: cast iron frames, solid rubber tires, and plain bearings for pedals, steering, and wheels. They were often quite durable and required little service. For example, when cyclist Thomas Stevens rode around the world in the 1880s, he reported only one significant mechanical problem in over 20,000 km, caused when the local military confiscated his bicycle and damaged the front wheel.
The well known dangers of the penny-farthing were, for the time of its prominence, outweighed by its strengths. While it was a difficult, dangerous machine, it was simpler, lighter, and faster than the safer velocipedes of the time. Additionally, the large wheel rode over bumps in the road more smoothly than smaller-wheeled vehicles. Two new developments changed this situation, and led to the rise of the Safety bicycle. The first was the chain drive, originally used on tricycles, allowing a gear ratio to be chosen independent of the wheel size. The second was the pneumatic bicycle tire, allowing smaller wheels to provide a smooth ride.
The nephew of one of the men responsible for popularity of the penny-farthing was largely responsible for its death. James Starley had built the Ariel (spirit of the air) high-wheeler in 1870; but this was a time of innovation, and when chain drives were upgraded so that each link had a small roller, higher and higher speeds became possible without the large wheel. In 1885, Starley's nephew John Kemp Starley took these new developments to launch the Rover Safety Bicycle, so-called because the rider, seated much lower and farther behind the front wheel contact point, was less prone to "a header" (going over the bars).
In 1888, when John Dunlop re-invented the pneumatic tire for his son's tricycle, the high wheel was made obsolete. The comfortable ride once found only on tall wheels could now be enjoyed on smaller chain-driven bicycles. By 1893, high-wheelers were no longer being produced. Use lingered into the 1920s in track cycling until racing safety bicycles were perfected.
Today, enthusiasts ride restored penny-farthings, and a few manufacturers build new ones.
The penny-farthing is a direct-drive bicycle, meaning the cranks and pedals are fixed directly to the hub. Instead of using "gears" to multiply the revolutions of the pedals, the driven wheel was enlarged to close to the rider's inseam, to increase the maximum speed. This shifted the rider nearly on top of the wheel. His feet could not reach the ground.
The frame is a single tube following the circumference of the front wheel, then diverting to a trailing wheel. A mounting peg is above the rear wheel. The front wheel is in a rigid fork with little if any trail. A spoon brake is usually fitted on the fork crown, operated by a lever from one of the handlebars. The bars are usually mustache shaped, dropping from the level of the headset. The saddle mounts on the frame less than 50 cm (18 in) behind the headset.
One particular model, made by Pope Manufacturing Company in 1886, weighs 36 lb, has a 60-spoke 53-inch front wheel and a 20-spoke 18-inch rear wheel. It is fitted with solid rubber tires. The rims, frame, fork, and handlebars are made from hollow, steel tubing. The steel axles are mounted in adjustable ball bearings. The leather saddle is suspended by springs.
All three have cranks that can be adjusted for length.
Mounting requires skill. One foot is placed on a peg above the back wheel. The rider grasps the handlebar, scoots and lifts himself into the saddle.
Although easy to ride slowly because of their high center of mass and the inverted pendulum effect, the penny-farthing was prone to accidents. To stop, the rider presses back on the pedals while applying a spoon-shaped brake pressing the tire. The center of mass being high and not far behind the front wheel meant any sudden stop or collision with a pothole or other obstruction could send the rider over the handlebars which often led to death. ("taking a header" or "coming a cropper"). On long downhills, some riders hooked their feet over the handlebars. This made for quick descents but left no chance of stopping. A head on collision with a pedestrian at speeds above 12mph had a 100% mortality rate and led to the deaths of 3025 people in 1918 alone.  A new type of handlebar was introduced, called Whatton bars, that looped behind the legs so that riders could still keep their feet on the pedals and also be able to leap feet-first forward off the machine.
The first recorded hour record was set in 1876 when Frank Dodds of England pedalled 15.8 miles (25.506 km) in an hour on a high wheeler around the Cambridge University Ground. The last (paced) hour record ever achieved on a penny-farthing bicycle was 23.72 miles (38.17 km) by Frederick J. Osmond (England) in 1891.
In 1884, Thomas Stevens rode a Columbia penny-farthing from San Francisco to Boston, the first cyclist to cross the United States. In 1885–86, he continued from London through Europe, the Middle East, China, and Japan, to become the first to ride round the world.
The bike, with the one wheel dominating, led to riders being referred to in America as "wheelmen", a name that lived on for nearly a century in the League of American Wheelmen until renamed the League of American Bicyclists in 1994. Clubs of racing cyclists wore uniforms of peaked caps, tight jackets and knee-length breeches, with leather shoes, the caps and jackets displaying the club's colors. In 1967 collectors and restorers of penny-farthings (and other early bicycles) founded the Wheelmen, a non-profit organization "dedicated to keeping alive the heritage of American cycling".
The high-wheeler lives on in the gear inch units used by cyclists in English-speaking countries to describe gear ratios. These are calculated by multiplying the wheel diameter in inches by the number of teeth on the front chain-wheel and dividing by the teeth on the rear sprocket. The result is the equivalent diameter of a penny-farthing wheel. A 60-inch gear, the largest practicable size for a high-wheeler, is nowadays a middle gear of a utility bicycle, while top gears on many exceed 100 inches. There was at least one 64-inch Columbia made in the mid-1880s, but 60 was the largest in regular production.
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