Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The penny-farthing is an early model of bicycle, produced in England in 1870. The two wheels are of disproportionate size: the front much larger than the rear. It is this feature that gave rise to the name: the English penny coin of the late 19th century was very large compared to the small farthing. The official name of the penny-farthing is the ordinary bicycle but unofficial names include high-wheel and boneshaker.
The penny-farthing is a direct-drive bicycle, meaning that the cranks and pedals are affixed directly to the hub. Instead of using a relatively complex and heavy gear system to multiply the revolutions of the pedals, the driven wheel was enlarged to its maximum radius -- up to a length equal to the rider's inseam -- to increase the maximum speed. This shifted the position of the rider upward, placing him nearly on top of the wheel. This meant that the rider's feet could not reach the ground while riding, making it effectively little more than a unicycle with an extra wheel for stability.
The penny-farthing was notorious for causing accidents. To slow and stop a high wheel, as with a fixed gear bicycle, the rider applies a backwards pedaling motion. The rider's high center of mass on a penny-farthing meant that trying to stop suddenly would likely send them flying over the handle bars (a "header"). On long downhill stretches riders would often take their feet off the pedals and hook them over the handle bars. This made for quick descents but left almost no chance of stopping should the need arise.
By the 1890s, the modern bicycle (known originally as the safety bicycle due to its great safety improvements over the penny-farthing) had become established, and penny-farthings are nowadays only museum pieces or kept by hobbyists.
The penny-farthing has made a number of appearances on The Simpsons. One features on a flyer for a box social proposed by Homer Simpson. After Homer confesses to hating and vandalising "old-timey bicycles" on public access television he is kicked in the face by a man riding on a penny-farthing.
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