The penny-farthing, also known as a high wheel, high wheeler and ordinary, is a type of bicycle with a large front wheel and a much smaller rear wheel. It was popular after the boneshaker until the development of the safety bicycle in the 1880s. It was the first machine to be called a “bicycle”.
Although the name “penny-farthing” is now the most common, it was probably not used until the machines were nearly outdated; the first recorded print reference is from 1891 in Bicycling News.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 name “ordinary” began to be used, to distinguish them from the emerging safety bicycles; this term and “hi-wheel” (and variants) are preferred by many modern enthusiasts.
In 1869, Eugène Meyer, a Frenchman, invented the High-Bicycle design and fashioned the wire-spoke tension wheel. Around 1870, English inventor 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.
Although the trend was short-lived, the penny-farthing became a symbol of the late Victorian era. Its popularity also coincided with the birth of cycling as a sport.