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By David Rooney on

Perilous Penny-farthings

Keeper of Technology and Engineering, David Rooney, celebrates 125 years since bicycles took the form that we know today.

It’s 125 years since bicycles took the form that we know today. Then, cycling meant mobility in a world before mass motoring. Now, eyes are turning to cycling as part of a solution to urban congestion.

Transport for London is planning a turn-up-and-ride cycle hire scheme for the capital, going live this summer. One problem might be theft of the bikes. TfL’s response? “The bicycles will stand out as Cycle Hire bicycles. That way we hope people will think twice about stealing or damaging them.” You can see what they mean on the BBC website here.

Cyclists have long striven for lightweight and comfortable machines. New frame designs, gear arrangements, pneumatic tyres and suspension all helped in the development of the form we know today.

The ‘boneshaker’ was the first bike design with pedal drive to become popular. It was developed in France in the 1860s and widely taken up around the world:

Boneshaker bicycle, c.1869 (Science Museum / Science & Society)
‘Boneshaker’ bicycle, c.1869 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

The ‘ordinary’ or ‘penny farthing’ was used from 1870 to 1890. The idea of the big front wheel was to increase speed – but it also made it dangerous and hard to ride:

Ordinary bicycle, c.1878 (Science Museum / Science & Society)
‘Ordinary’ bicycle, c.1878 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Then the ‘safety’ bicycle was introduced in 1885. The diamond frame with chain drive to the back wheel was much easier and safer to ride, and turned the bike into a universal mode of transport:

Safety bicycle, 1885 (Science Museum / Science & Society)
‘Safety’ bicycle, 1885 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

We’ve examples of all three types in our Making the Modern World gallery, if you fancy a trip out this weekend…

3 comments on “Perilous Penny-farthings

  1. I saw somebody riding a penny farthing along the South Bank just after New Year. It was just by the space where the skateboarders hang out – I’m sure he was there for the anachronism of it all. On the congestion issue though, he was in the way a lot less than all the skater kids 🙂

  2. As many people will know, the idea of city bikes for temporary hire originate in Denmark – Copenhagen, to be more specific. More than simply an easy and environmentally friendly means of city transportation, they have been used by Copenhagen to promote its image abroad: For example, when in 1997 American president Bill Clinton visited Copenhagen, The City of Copenhagen gave him a specially designed city bike called “City Bike One”. In 2006, my home city Aarhus launched a city bike scheme, which presented itself as being “socially sustainable”: the bikes are being repaired by people who used to be unemployed or in some other way unable to enter the normal job market. Bikes, indeed, are used as part of the solution for many kinds of problems 🙂

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