High-Wheelers in Hingham

Group of Boys with Bicycles
These seven Hingham boys posed with three bicycles are witnessing the birth of modern cycling. Behind them are two older bicycles—so-called “high wheelers” or “penny farthings” (the latter nickname descriptive of the relative sizes of the two wheels). High-wheelers originated in England and became popular in the United States in the early 1880s. As this photo lets us see clearly, these early bicycles had a “direct drive” mechanism, that is, the pedals attach directly to the wheel, so that the cyclist’s motion turns the wheel directly. Enlarging the front wheel, therefore, was the only way to make the bicycles go faster–and this is what happened. Front wheels often five feet in diameter, with the cyclist perched directly over the wheel, meant an increased risk of the cyclist pitching headfirst from the front of his bike. Cycling in the era of the high wheelers was a sport for athletic young men.

By the early 1890s, however, “safety bicycles”—like the one lying on the ground in front of the boys—had been introduced and quickly grown in popularity. With two wheels of equal size and pedals connected to a chain that propelled the rear wheel, this direct ancestor of our modern bicycles had a lower center of gravity and was easier to ride. With these technological advances—and the pneumatic tires which smoothed out the ride, bicycling became a very popular past time, with men, women, and children all participating.

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