Progress! It's an ironic symbol of progress. The penny farthing bicycle represents a simpler age. We live in an era where science is advancing so quickly, you don't even have time to learn about the latest innovations before something new arises.
One of the things I like about New York City is the different kinds of bicycles. I'm not just talking about totally tricked-out bikes, either, but the abundance of variety. (Alfred Russel Wallace — the man from whom Darwin stole the theory of evolution — would have loved modern bicycles.) Anyway, there's one type of bicycle I've never seen on the streets of NYC: the "penny farthing."
Also known as boneshakers or high-wheels, for obvious reasons, these bikes first appeared in Victorian England in 1870. The reason for the huge front wheel is that these bicycles didn't have gears. That's right, it used a direct-drive system, and the huge circumference multiplied the speed of the rider's pedaling. The height was typically the same as the rider's inseam, which is basically the ankle-to-crotch pants length. Lacking brakes, these bicycles were stopped by backpedalling — pedaling backwards. (A technique familiar to the anyone who watches politics.)
The penny farthing essentially vanished when the "safety bicycle" — what we know as the modern bicycle with front and rear tires of the same size — was invented around 1890. The only place you're likely to have seen on is on The Prisoner. (Ahhhh, now the entry's title makes sense!) The only place I've seen them is in history books and on HBO's Deadwood. Well, TallBike.com has taken steps to remedy this disappearance, making what appear to be faithful reproductions of the original for $500:
We are now having many parts cast in SS and the black fork head shown in photos will be replaced by a polished SS one on the bikes sold. Bike has a 50" wheel in front and 16" in rear. The weight is a bit high at 46 lbs. The front wheel with tire, cranks and pedals is 20 lbs and the backbone with front end and rear tire attached is 26 lbs.Our Bikes - R2 Repro Penny Farthing Bicycle - Tall Bike Rudge Reproduction
What impresses me most is the extensive security feature designed to stand up to tough environments like NYC. Just imagine the sheer frustration of a bike thief faced with this security system:
It's even tougher to remove than the legendary Kryptonite lock. (Which proved that the pen is mightier than the lock.)
Not that I was ever a huge Prisoner fan, but Patrick McGoohan's comment about the penny farthing as a symbol of progress really does work.
"Where am I?"
"...In the Village."
"What do you want?"
"Whose side are you on?"
"...That would be telling... we want information... information...information"
"You won't get it!"
"By hook or by crook, we will."
"Who are you?"
"The new number two."
"Who is number one?"
"You are number six."
"I am not a number! I am a free man!"
The Prisoner, 1969