The ordinary, high wheel or penny-farthing was the first true bicycle with which actual speed and distance could be achieved in a practical manner. Larger and larger wheels, up to 1.5m (60") in diameter, were built to enable higher speeds. The classically oversized penny-farthing wheel refers to the British penny and farthing coins of the time; the former being much larger than the latter so that the side view of the bicycle resembled two such coins placed next to each other.
Based on the original French Boneshaker, James Starley and others produced bicycles with front wheels of ever increasing size, starting about 1870. In 1878 Albert Pope began manufacturing the Columbia bicycle just outside of Boston, thus starting their nearly two decade-long heyday in America. Although the trend was relatively short-lived, the penny-farthing bicycle has since become a prominent historical symbol of the late Victorian era. Its brief popularity also coincided with the birth of cycling as a sport.
The ordinary is a direct-drive bicycle, meaning that the cranks and pedals are affixed directly to the hub, similar to those of a small tricycle. Instead of using a relatively complex and heavy gear system to multiply the revolutions of the pedals, the driven wheel was enlarged to its maximum radius—up to a length close to the rider's inseam—to increase the maximum speed. This shifted the position of the rider upward, placing him nearly on top of the wheel. This meant that the rider's feet could not reach the ground while riding.
The frame is a single tube following the circumference of the front wheel for around 1/4 arc, then diverting at a tangent to a fork in which is mounted a small trailing wheel. A mounting peg is attached above the rear wheel. The front wheel is mounted in a rigid fork with little if any trail. A spoon brake is usually fitted on the fork crown, operated by a lever from one of the handlebars. The bars are usually mustache shaped, dropping down from the level of the headset. The saddle mounts on the frame somewhat less than 0.5m (18") behind the headset.
Mounting a wheel is a process requiring some skill. One foot is placed on a small peg on the frame above the back wheel. The rider then grasps the handlebar, scoots using the other foot, and when sufficient speed has been gained to effect balance, lifts himself into the saddle. Unsurprisingly, strong, spry young men dominated bicycling at this time.
Although easy to ride even at low speed because of the inverted pendulum effect, the penny-farthing was notoriously prone to accidents. In order to slow and stop a high wheel, as with a fixed gear bicycle, the rider applies a small amount of back pressure on the pedals while continuing forwards, augmented by use of a spoon-shaped brake pressing on the tire. The center of mass being both high and not far behind the contact point of the front wheel meant that any attempt to stop suddenly, or any collision with a large pothole or other obstruction, would be likely to send the rider flying over the handlebars (known as "taking a header" or "coming a cropper"). On long downhill stretches it was recommended that riders take their feet off the pedals and hook them over the handlebars, so that in case of a crash they would land (hopefully) on their feet. This made for quick descents but left almost no chance of stopping should the need arise.
The appearance of the bike, with the one wheel dominating, led to their riders being referred to in America especially as "wheelmen", a name that lived on for nearly a century in the League of American Wheelmen until it was renamed the League of American Bicyclists. Clubs of racing cyclists would wear uniforms comprising peaked caps, tight jackets and knee-length breeches, with leather shoes, the caps and jackets displaying the club's colors.
Some tremendous feats of balance were reportedly exhibited by high wheel riders, including negotiating a narrow bridge parapet for a dare, and riding down the US Capitol steps on a Star bicycle, with the small wheel in the front.
The high-wheeler lives on in spirit in the gear inch units used by cyclists in English speaking countries to describe gear ratios. These are calculated by multiplying the wheel diameter in inches by the number of teeth on the front chain-wheel and dividing by the number of teeth on the rear sprocket. The result, in inches, is the equivalent diameter of a wheel (for example a typical bike might have a 26" wheel, a 48T chain-ring and a 14T sprocket, giving an 89" gear). A 60" gear, the largest reasonably practicable size for a high-wheeler's front wheel, is nowadays a middle gear of a typical utility bicycle, while top gears on many bikes exceed 100". There was at least one 64" Columbia Expert made in the mid 1880's, but 60 was the largest wheel offered in regular production.
In 1884, Thomas Stevens rode a Columbia penny-farthing from San Francisco to Boston, becoming the first cyclist to cross the United States. In 1885–86 he continued his journey from London through Europe, the Middle East, China, and Japan, to become the first cyclist to ride around the world.
Ironically, the nephew of one of the men responsible for the popularity of the penny-farthing was largely responsible for its death. James Starley had originally built the Ariel (spirit of the air) high-wheeler in 1870 but this was a time of rapid innovation and when chain drives were upgraded so that each link had a small roller, higher and higher speeds became possible without the large wheel. In 1885, James Starley's nephew John Kemp Starley took advantage of these new developments to launch the Rover Safety Bicycle. His new bike was called a 'Safety' because the rider, seated much lower and farther behind the front wheel contact point, was far less prone to "taking a header".
In 1888, when John Dunlop reinvented the pneumatic tire for his ten year old son's tricycle, the High Wheel bicycle was made obsolete. The comfortable ride once only found on tall wheels, could now be enjoyed on smaller chain-driven bicycles. Over the next ten to fifteen years the ordinary in all its forms practically vanished. It lingered into the 1920s in track cycling until racing safety bicycles were perfected.
Today there are enthusiasts who ride restored ordinaries, and even a few who will build a new one, but the shape of the Rover Safety and its development of the diamond-framed bicycle has come to dominate the public perception of what a bicycle looks like. Only a few cyclists understand that the term "ordinary bicycle" does not mean a standard diamond-frame.