The Penny-Farthing

In the late 19th century, which contraption was first known as a "penny-farthing?"

And the answer is: the bicycle.

A man riding a penny-farthing

Also known as a high wheeler, the penny-farthing was the first machine to be called a "bicycle." Popular in the 1870s and 1880s, it had a large front wheel, where the rider sat, and a much smaller back wheel. It got its name from the British penny and farthing coins, with the former being much larger than the latter.

In 1817, German engineer Karl von Drais began to pave the way for the modern-day bicycle. His 50-pound wooden prototype could steer, but lacked a chain, pedals or even brakes. Instead, riders propelled themselves forward by pushing off the ground (and hoping for the best).

Two prototypes of the modern-day bicycle

Soon after Drais' short-lived yet sensationalized invention (referred to as either "velocipede," "hobby-horse," "draisine" or "running machine"), several different French inventors developed prototypes with pedals attached to the front wheel. These so-called "penny-farthings" introduced the ability to self-propel, and were the first machines to be called "bicycles," though they were also known as "boneshakers" for their rough ride.

A race featuring bone-shakers

It wasn't until 1884 that Englishman John Kemp Starley perfected a “safety bicycle” design that featured equal-sized wheels and a chain. The world quickly became infatuated with the freedom of the bicycle. An enthusiastic New York Times article referred to the invention as "a splendid extension of personal power and freedom, scarcely inferior to what wings would give."

Check out the video below to see these early bicycles in action.

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