The penny farthing bicycle

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Powerhouse Museum Collection, object no H5157. Gift of Mr P H Bullock, 1951.

Our small (but beautiful) bicycle display has proved so popular that its run has been extended to 5 November 2012. Not surprisingly, the bicycle that attracts the most attention is the penny farthing. It’s majestic, it looks a real challenge to ride, and it was a radical design in its day. Those are all excellent reasons to focus on it during NSW Bicycle Week (15-23 September).

The aim of Bicycle Week is to encourage people to hop on bikes, get some exercise, enjoy their local environment, and brush up on bicycle safety and maintenance. A few riders will probably hop aboard their penny farthings, because they enjoy the challenge of riding the extraordinary bike that’s also called an ‘ordinary’ or ‘high wheeler’.

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Powerhouse Museum Collection, object no H5157. Gift of Mr P H Bullock, 1951.

Let’s take a look at those names. ‘High wheeler’ is the obvious name if you compare one of these machines to earlier bikes. Having a large direct-driven front wheel (extra large in the case of a very tall rider) meant it could travel further for each turn of the pedals than a bike with a smaller front wheel. ‘Ordinary’ was a name conferred on it when the diamond-frame safety bicycle began to challenge its supremacy. And ‘penny farthing’ was a nickname coined (ahem!) because the front wheel is much larger than the back wheel, reflecting the difference in size between the English penny and the farthing, a coin worth a quarter of a penny.

Apart from the radically large front wheel and very small back wheel, the innovative features of the penny farthing were its tubular steel frame, lightweight wire spokes and solid rubber tyres. Earlier bicycles had wooden frames, spokes and rims, and their tyres were iron strips around the wooden wheel rims. The penny farthing could move fast and gave birth to the sport of cycle racing.

James Starley of Coventry, UK, was the inventor of the penny farthing. He adapted skills and materials used in mass-producing sewing machines to the task of making bicycles and tricycles, and he became known as the father of the British bicycle industry. His numerous inventions included the differential, which later became an essential feature of cars. Keeping the competition within the family, his nephew, John Kemp Starley, later invented the safety bicycle.

We count a staff member, Jonathan Fowler, among the happy band of penny farthing enthusiasts. He has raced in the hotly contested National Penny Farthing Championships, held each year at Evandale in Tasmania. This year he rode his bicycle at Maitland’s Steamfest, as part of the Powerhouse Museum’s contribution to that annual event, and at the Museum during Ultimo Science Festival. It was wonderful to watch him ride, especially for those of us who would never be daring enough to give it a go.