Penny farthing bicycle, 1881-1886
From 1870 to 1885, the penny farthing had a brief, but visually-lasting, effect on the development of the bicycle with its very large, and distinctive front driven wheel and small rear wheel. It was called a penny farthing after the British coins of the period, a penny, and quarter of a penny, a farthing.
Penny farthings were difficult to mount and dismount, unstable because their high centre of gravity, and could pitch the rider at speed over the handle bars from braking too hard, swerving or hitting small obstructions on the road. Despite only being able to be ridden by the young, fit and athletic, they were very popular both on the road and in racing.
The penny farthing cost the equivalent of several weeks' wages. It was elegant, simple and efficient as well as smooth and graceful to watch, and soon developed a cult following. The first example arrived in Australia in 1875, imported in Melbourne, which by the 1880s was in the middle of a cycling boom. Journals were published, races organised, clubs established, and intercity cycle trips undertaken. Members wore knickerbocker suits and pillbox caps.
This penny farthing, made in the 1880s by the English firm of Bayliss, Thomas & Co., of Coventry, is called the "Excelsior". The Bayliss, Thomas firm incorporated a number of new design features and material technology developments in their bicycles including being the first to replace the solid steel frame and front fork with lighter, hollow tubing in 1879.
Information provided by Paul & Charlie Farren
Penny Farthing Club of N.S.W.
Assistant Curator, Science & Industry