The high wheeler, the velocipede, the penny-farthing. Yes, all those words look like a jumble of letters tossed onto your screen — and trust us, saying “penny-farthing” out loud sounds a bit funny in the mouth. Conceived in 1869 by Frenchman Eugène Meyer, the penny-farthing is one of the original bicycle designs, with a huge wheel in the front and a smaller wheel in the back. Its name, really no better than velocipede, derives from English coins — the penny next to the farthing mimics the look of the bike’s wheels — the rider would perch up high and pedal the front wheel directly.
It wasn’t a popular way to ride for too long — only approximately 10 years — but the penny-farthing still managed to become a symbol for how wacky the Victorian era was. After all, a nice combination of steam, Victorian-era costuming and gadgetry, and strange sci-fi leanings is what makes steampunk a thing. The Victorian-era gave way to lots of strange machinery, so it’s no surprise the mechanisms for a proper bicycle took on bizarre iterations before landing on what we have today.
The first bikes invented were not comfortable to ride. Right before the invention of the penny-farthing came what was nicknamed the boneshaker, because this pedaling bike was entirely made of wood and wrought iron, making any remote jostle completely and totally uncomfortable. The height and shape of the penny-farthing made it difficult to ride, a huge risk, and a pain in the ass to get on, but it was still the best design of its time. It was sleeker and smoother than its boneshaker brother and its tires were made of rubber — making it so any bumps or divots in the roads didn’t literally shake your bones.
The rise in popularity of the penny-farthing, and subsequent design of its replacement and our modern day bike, was due in large part to the rise in popularity of bike racing. If you build it, they will come — after a burst of popularity so gents could race along a track, the introduction of a chain to move the rear tire made the design of a high wheel obsolete. By 1893, penny-farthings were no longer in production.
But the penny-farthing has persisted as a symbol of total bike nerdery. Iconic even with some of the major details stripped, tattoo and bike enthusiasts alike have filled their skin with interpretations of the penny-farthing — some cute as can be, others as serious odes to this historic bicycle. So while the bike itself may never come back into popular play, its image lives on, on the skin of many a nerdy cyclist.