The penny farthing was a logical development of the ‘Michaux-type’ of velocipede, which was the first real bicycle, although it had wooden wheels.
Around 1870-1871 the first factories started to build bicycles which were made completely out of metal. Thin spokes lightened the wheels.
As there was no chain, the only way to go faster, was to enlarge the front wheel. As a consequence, they made the rear wheel smaller.
One can roughly say that:
1870-1875: wheels grew bigger, up to sizes of 56 inch. Front and rear wheels had plain or cone bearings. In the first years, backbone, front and rear fork were made of solid steel. In 1872 the first factories started with hollow backbones: a big improvement! Brake functioned on the rear wheel, by twisting the handlebars. This was the same method that Michaux applied. The seat spring was very long and often pointing forward.
1876-1879: In these years the backbone was always hollow. Wheel sizes grew up to 60 inch, although hardly anyone could ride these very big machines. 50 -54 inch wheels were most common.
1880-1886: Around 1880 all makers switched to front-wheel brakes. This was combined with a shorter spring. The most expensive models had:
- hollow front fork and hollow or semi-tubular rear fork
- hollow rim on front wheel and sometimes also at the rear
1887-1892: The safety bicycle was
taking over. In a last attempt to make the penny farthing more safe,
some factories brought out new models with a bigger rear wheel, a
greater rake of the front fork and the saddle mounted somewhat
backwards. This model was called ‘the rational’, but it couldn’t
prevent the public from buying the more safe and faster safeties. In 1892 the last original ordinary bicycles were built.