During 19th Annual Tamaqua Heritage Festival in the Tamaqua, PA, National Historic District, Oct. 12, 2003. This highwheel model is a Victory, the 14th bike produced by Victory Bikes of Orlando, FL. Photo by Sue Dolan
The Highwheel was once called an Ordinary. Today it's anything but!
The award-winning Victorian Highwheelers welcome you to the world of riding high - the way personal transportation began! The Victorian Highwheel was the first machine to allow man the ability to travel far distance (on land) under his own power. But it has other claims to fame, including the fact that it's generally regarded as the world's first bicycle. It was developed in 1871 by James Starley and others in Coventry, England, and was king of the road during the 1880s. It opened the door to personal transportation because it allowed man to travel great distances without a horse. By the way, these antique bicycles are known by a few different names aside from 'Ordinary,' including the Penny Farthing, the Penny Wheel and, of course, the Highwheel bicycle. Name variations include a hyphenated High-wheel and two separate words, High wheel. Back in the Victorian era, riders simply called it their Wheel, as in: "I think I'll go out on my Wheel after supper." Some folks refer to it as an 'Amish bike' because the Highwheel was popular with PA Germans.
Riding a Highwheel provides a sense of exhilaration. The rider sits high above the road in a way that provides a new look at the world. There are some distinct challenges in learning to ride. To begin, one must push the bike to get it moving and then leap up into the saddle using the benefit of a very small steel step that protrudes from the lower part of the bike's spine. The rider straddles the giant wheel and is seated very close to the center of balance. A bit tricky, but lots of fun.
There are original Highwheels and repro Highwheels. But not too many of each.
Yes, it's possible to purchase a high quality repro Highwheel. There are a few builders, not many. Some of these craftsmen manufacture bikes that closely follow the configuration of the originals. The red Highwheel shown above happens to be a repro, a 50" Victory bike hand-built to the original specs of a bike with a very similar name, an 1880s Victor. Keep in mind that production of these bikes is a labor-intensive procedure. Normally, I ride a 51" original - a restored 1888 Columbia Light Roadster. Regarding size: a bike must be fitted to the rider; that is, according to the length of one's leg. It's important to have the correct size wheel to match one's leg length, more specifically the reach of your foot (not necessarily your inseam measurement). A rider must be able to comfortably reach the pedals.
The Victorian Highwheelers
While Highwheels were plentiful in their day, they were abandoned about 1890 due to safety concerns. Many riders were injured and even killed by doing a 'header.' What's a header? Well, it's when you flip forward. It can happen, for instance, when a rider lets the wheel hit something it can't roll over. In cases like that, the bike will suddenly flip forward, sending the rider head-first into the ground. That's why Highwheels disappeared in favor of newer Safety bikes. Later, many original Highwheels were melted down during scrap drives for WWI and even WWII.
Today, some experts say that an estimated 5,000 or more original Highwheels remain out of hundreds of thousands made. That's not too many! Some of those hang in museums or are part of private collections. For that reason, it is rare to see a Highwheel being ridden on the streets, along with the fact that learning to ride can be challenging and even dangerous.