The high wheel bicycle was the next step taken in the ‘evolution’ of the bicycle. High-wheelers used increased wheel size to make the bicycle travel further for each revolution of the pedals. They were manufactured for about 20 years (1870-1892)5 and at their peak around 1880, as the most common bicycle design, they were known as Ordinaries.

Who invented the High Wheeler?

Eugène Meyer is considered by the International Cycling History Conference (ICHC) as the inventor of the High Wheeler.1,2,3 In 1869, Meyer patented the wire-spoke tension or suspension wheel with individually adjustable spokes.2, 5 In August 1870, further to outbreak of the Franco-Prussian war, veteran cycle racer James Moore brought to a Wolverhampton race meet, an oversized racing bicycle he had been using in Paris for the previous three months. The front wheel had a diameter of 43 inches, and the seating position was almost directly over the front wheel.2

An alternative candidate is J.K. Starley’s uncle James. On August 11 1870,6,8 James Starley and William Hillman patented the Ariel, one of the first all metal mass-produced high-wheelers. Its front wheel of 48 inches was slightly smaller than the 50 to 60 inches used in most subsequent Ordinaries. The front wheel had radial spokes and a lever for tensioning and torque transmission. 8   In 1874, James Starley patented  the logical extension of this idea, the tangent or cross spoke wheel, which has remained the standard spoking method to this day.8.

The Rise of the High Wheeler

The increase in high-wheeler output was dramatic; from 50,000 bicycles from 30 manufacturers in the UK (14 in Coventry) in 1875, to 400,000 bicycles and 22 Coventry manufacturers in 1885. 4 p27

At this time, high-wheelers were also built in Italy and Japan. In America, English high-wheelers were shown at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. In 1878, Albert A. Pope imported English machines, then began promoting and manufacturing the Columbia high-wheel bicycle, leading to their twenty year dominance of the U.S. market.

Contribution to overall bicycle development

During the reign of the High-Wheeler, many of the key elements of the modern bicycle were developed:

•     Ball bearings 4 p 26

•     Tangent spoked wheels  4

•     Hollow steel tubing 4

•     Caliper brakes

•     Hollow steel rims


1. Clayton, Nick, 1996, Who invented the Penny Farthing, Proceedings No. 7, Buffalo, NY

2. Herlihy, D.V., 2004, Bicycle, p160, 161

3. Wikipedia, Penny Farthing

4. Perry, D.B, 1995, Bike Cult

5. Clayton, Nick, 1986, Early Bicycles, Shire Album, p12-15

6. Williamson, G., 1966, Wheels within Wheels – the story of the Starleys of Coventry

     7. McGurn, Jim, 1999, On your Bicycle, p46

     8. Wilson, D.G., 2004, Bicycling Science, p17-