Christmas Yule Blog 2019 – Penny Dreadful?

Seasons greetings one and all. It’s that most wonderful time of the year – Christmas. Which means it’s time for another Two Wheeled Ronin Christmas special! And this year, it’s a Victorian Christmas.

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The Victorians were responsible for many of the Christmas traditions we still enjoy today. The tree in the house, Christmas cards and even Christmas Crackers! (I hope you’ve been enjoying some of my cracker jokes over on the Two Wheeled Ronin advent on Instagram).

The other thing the Victorians were responsible for was the penny farthing bicycle. At this point, I would like to apologise for the very tenuous connection between Christmas and the subject of this blog post!

In 1871, the first high wheeler was invented in Britain – the creation of engineer, James Starley. A big name in the development of the bicycle and a real two wheeled hero. He came up with this strange, new machine, which would be the first to be called a “bicycle”. A big wheel at the front and a smaller one at the back. No chain, but pedals fixed to the hub in the middle of the large front wheel. So large in fact, the rider would be so high they couldn’t touch the ground once riding.

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The first high wheeler Starley created was named the Ariel, which means “Spirit of the Air”.  Production of these new bicycles took place in a factory in Bournbrook, South Birmingham. This would eventually become the company, Ariel Motorcycles. Just one of the many connections between bicycles and motorcycles that I absolutely love.

Fun Fact: The name Penny-farthing wasn’t used whilst it was popular. They were referred to as “high-wheelers” or “Ordinaries” and the term “Penny-farthing” was only used after is popularity had ended.

What I find most interesting about the penny farthing is that it was such a departure in the evolution of the bicycle. Prior to this we’d already had the “boneshaker” and the “velocipede” which were definitely the forerunners on the modern bicycle we know today. But the high-wheeler was a very different beast. So, why did it happen?

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The real reason was speed. As bicycle technology got more advanced, people wanted to ride them faster and faster. With each pedal rotation the larger wheel would provide a greater distance. Not that surprising that this was also the start of competitive cycle racing.

Sadly, there were issues with the penny-farthing. Firstly, the size of the front wheel. Difficult to control and “Headers”, a term that means falling off of the front the bike, were a common occurrence and could be fatal. This was also during a time of high innovation. Cycling technology was increasing rapidly. The drive chain was just around the corner and when John Dunlop “re-invented” the pneumatic tyre, that was pretty much the end of it.

Its funny to think that such an iconic machine was only popular for about 20 years and ultimately made obsolete by the “safety bicycle”, which is generally considered to be the first modern bicycle and an invention of James Starley’s nephew, John Kemp Starley. A very talented family!

As far as riding one, I’m yet to have had the pleasure but I’m pretty confident it would end in a header! But if you’re thinking about having a go yourself, here’s a great warning from writer Mark Twain regarding dismounting. “You don’t get down as you would from a horse, you get down as you would from a house afire”.

Thank you for reading. I just wanted to take this opportunity to wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous 2020.

Words and Pictures by Craig Willis

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