Last Sunday I was having lunch with my cousin Lucy in a trendy section of Atlanta known for its variety of restaurants, bars, and unique shops. We were dining by the window when I noticed something across the street that I’d always wanted to try.
It was a contraption known as a Penny-Farthing. It was the world’s first bicycle; invented in 1870. Oh, there were other double-inline-wheeled vehicles before this one, but they were coaster bikes that you propelled Fred Flintstone style by pushing your feet against the ground. The Penny-Farthing was the first one on which you could mechanically propel yourself by pedalling.
I’ve always wanted to ride a Penny-Farthing
As a biking enthusiast, who also has a strong sense of nostalgia for the olden days, I’ve always wanted to ride one, but I’d only seen them in pictures. You’ve probably seen a picture of one before – it’s the original big-wheel. Giant wheel in front with a tiny wheel in back. That’s how it got its name; it reminded someone of penny next to a farthing (an old British penny and quarter penny – you could look them up; I did, but after seeing the proportions, I thought “Silver Dollar-Dime” would’ve been a better name).
This one was on display in front of a bicycle store. After we finished eating, we crossed the street for what I hoped was an opportunity to scratch an item off my bucket list. Lee, the shopkeeper, was happy to tell us all about it, but first he said it wasn’t for sale or rent. Wah! So much for my bucket list. He explained that it had been brought in for a repair three months earlier, but the bike’s owner hadn’t returned to pick it up. Hence he turned it into a display item to attract people into the store. It sure worked on me, but I was so excited at seeing one, that I didn’t care it was only a tease.
These bikes have been out of production since 1893, mostly because they are mortally dangerous. The rider’s body weight is centered over the big front wheel, and if the wheel hits a pothole, the rider is thrown head first over the handlebars. Unfortunately for those early adopters, bike helmets weren’t invented until the mid-1970s.
This Penny-Farthing had been custom built, and it stood as tall as a man. Lee helped us get on it. He held it steady, while we took turns climbing into the seat. It was way higher than I had imagined. My foot at its lowest extension was still two and a half feet off the ground. There was no way I could touch the ground with my toes. Which made me curious, how would I actually get on it if Lee wasn’t there?
Lee explained: you had to run alongside it, put your foot on the small step conveniently placed just above the rear wheel, then launch yourself onto the seat (sort of like rodeo cowboys do when they leapfrog onto a horse from behind), all while trying to grab the handlebars (which are too high and far from the back to hold while running), getting your feet on the pedals, and maintaining your balance so that you don’t fall over. If the bike does fall over, then you get to start over… albeit sorer from the bruises and abrasions you got while body slamming the pavement.
I’m thinking that the average rider, in the 1880s when these bikes were most common, may not have had to go through all those gymnastics. Most houses and buildings had carriage blocks so that people would have a step between their horse-drawn vehicles and the ground. These would have been a perfect height for climbing on your bike and pushing off. Then again, most of the people riding these bikes were athletic young men in their 20s and 30s who would’ve looked at me in contempt for even considering using a stepping stone. OK, I’m a few decades past my 20s, which is my sole excuse for even thinking of it.
If you’re wondering why these bikes had such a big wheel (typically between 55 and 65 inches in diameter), it was to give them more speed. The bigger the wheel the faster it would go. The Penny-Farthing did not have a chain – it was direct drive propulsion – which means the pedals were fixed to the wheel. Think about that for a moment. That means as long as the wheel is turning, so are the pedals. When you ride downhill, you have to take your feet off the pedals because they would be going around too fast for your legs to keep up. Back in the day, most riders put their legs on top of the handlebars while going downhill. Why? Because if they hit a bump and were thrown over the handlebars, they would land on their feet instead of their heads. Oh, one more thing, most of these bikes did NOT have brakes.
NO BRAKES? That leads me to one conclusion: these bikes were designed to be ridden in cities with flat hill-less roads. That pretty much eliminates my hometown of Atlanta, which of major U.S. cities is second in elevation behind Denver, which means there are no flat roads to ride on. Here in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the only way we can get a flat surface to bike on is to pave over an old railroad bed.
Despite all I learned, I still want to ride a Penny-Farthing. I just want to do it where the roads are flat, traffic is light, and before I have to worry about breaking a hip. So…, what’s on your bucket-list?
— Robert Evans Wilson Jr is an author, humourist-speaker and innovation consultant. He works with companies that want to be more competitive and with people who want to think like innovators. Robert is the author of …and Never Coming Back, a psychological thriller-novel about a motion picture director; the inspirational book: Wisdom in the Weirdest Places; and The Annoying Ghost Kid a humorous children’s book about dealing with a bully. For more information on Robert, please visit here