The velocipede that we now call a penny-farthing, was originally known as a Safety Bicycle in Australia (and probably the rest of the world). The recent invention of spokes allowed for the development of larger ‘spider’ wheels. The large front wheel allowed for higher gearing, and the bigger wheel was more comfortable over bumps and potholes. However, cycling enthusiasts were both excited and appalled by this newest innovation in velocipedes, because they looked so ‘flimsy’ and yet had intriguing new gadgets.
In the Austral Wheel Race of 1890, Mr Gordon of Gippsland rode the “tallest machine in the world”. It was sixty-five inches high, while Mr Gordon himself was six feet four inches. – excerpt from Keith Dunstan’s The Confessions of a Bicycle Nut
Of course, the length of one’s legs restricted the size of one’s front wheel. As women are generally shorter than men, it meant the penny-farthing was much more popular with men than women. It was a difficult vehicle to mount and dismount. To keep your balance, the bicycle had to be moving, and you had to hoist yourself up to the seat and find the madly twirling pedals before you fell over. I imagine this took some practice, and involved quite a few scrapes and bruises until the enthusiast learnt the knack. Falling off would have been like falling off a tall horse.
As well, the braking system was rather primitive; the spoon brake. The big wheel meant these velocipedes were devilishly fast, the rider’s weight was over the front axle, and so hitting the brake too hard would somersault the rider and his bicycle with disastrous results (gravity works). The rider would be projected head first into the ground with some force. It paid to learn how to fall sideways; still painful, but it saved your helmetless head. Fatal accidents were common in Australia.
As a writer of Steampunk narratives, I think it is important to understand the differences between riding a modern bike compared to the Victorian boneshakers and solid-wheeled velocipede. Before the modern bike could appear, there had to be Dunlop’s invention of the rubber, air-filled wheel; experiments with wheel sizes in relation to gears; the invention of safer braking systems, and a multitude of other innovations. The experience of bike riding changed along with the bikes. What I really want is a long discussion with someone who rides an antique penny-farthing.