The penny-farthing, also known as a high wheel, high wheeler or ordinary, was the first machine to be called a “bicycle”. It was popular in the 1870s and 1880s, with its large front wheel providing high speeds (owing to it traveling a large distance for every rotation of the legs) and comfort (the large wheel provides greater shock absorption).
It became obsolete from the late 1880s with the development of modern bicycles, which provided similar speed amplification via chain-driven gear trains and comfort through pneumatic tires, and were marketed in comparison to penny-farthings as “safety bicycles” because of the reduced danger of falling and the reduced height to fall from.
The name came from the British penny and farthing coins, the former being much larger than the latter, so that the side view resembles a larger penny leading a smaller farthing.
Although the trend was short-lived, the penny-farthing became a symbol of the late Victorian era. Its popularity also coincided with the birth of cycling as a sport.
Take a look at these cool vintage photos to see Victorian people posing with their penny-farthings from between the 1870s and 1890s.