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.
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.