How dangerous was the penny-farthing?

What was the penny-farthing, and how dangerous was it for those who used them in the 19th century? Find out more with this answer from BBC History Revealed

Photo of a man on a penny-farthing

The penny-farthing bike got its name from its two differently-sized wheels, with the front wheel likened to a penny coin and the much smaller rear wheel compared to a farthing (a quarter of a penny).

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It was a style of bicycle popular in the 1870s and 1880s. The large wheel allowed each turn of the pedals to drive the bicycle a greater distance, and also allowed for a smoother ride over the cobbled streets and uneven roads of the period. But with the rider sitting up to 1.5m off the ground, broken bones were all too common in the event of accidents.

Even worse, the position of the rider over the front axle meant that any sudden stop caused by hitting a stone would hurl the rider forward headfirst. Hitting the ground with the head could be, and sometimes was, fatal.

The popularity of penny-farthings waned with the development of gears, allowing the ratio between pedal and wheel to be varied. The second breakthrough was the pneumatic tyre, which gave a smoother ride. By 1893, ‘safety bicycles’ were on sale and penny-farthings were no longer being made.

A group of women cycling along the beach at Newquay, c1923. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
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This article was taken from BBC History Revealed magazine