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 travelling 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 Although the name "penny-farthing" is now the most common, it was probably not used until the machines were nearly outdated; the first recorded print reference is from 1891 in Bicycling News. For most of their reign, they were simply known as "bicycles". In the late 1890s, the name "ordinary" began to be used, to distinguish them from the emerging safety bicycles; this term and "hi-wheel" (and variants) are preferred by many modern enthusiasts.
Following the popularity of the boneshaker, Eugène Meyer, a Frenchman, invented the high-wheeler bicycle design in 1869 and fashioned the wire-spoke tension wheel. Around 1870 English inventor James Starley, described as the father of the bicycle industry, and others, began producing bicycles based on the French boneshaker but with front wheels of increasing size, because larger front wheels, up to 5 feet (1.52 m) in diameter, enabled higher speeds on bicycles limited to direct drive. In 1878, Albert Pope began manufacturing the Columbia bicycle outside Boston, starting their two-decade heyday in America.
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.