Sunday, 18 July 2010

Non-stop braking system

This is the "spoon brake" on a beautifully restored penny-farthing bicycle that was on show this weekend at the Thames Traditional Boat Rally. I believe I have the Solent Veteran Cycle Club to thank for an interesting display.

A spoon brake is a bit like a spoon connected to levers, that are used to press it against the solid tyre. It isn't obvious from the picture but this type of brake on a penny farthing is working on a wheel that might be as much as five foot across. The bigger the wheel, the higher the speed that a strong rider could achieve. Speeds of more than 20 miles an hour were recorded over short distances, and the best riders could sustain 18 mph over distances of 50 miles.

At those speeds the inevitable question is how they would slow down.

There was no free-wheel, so to some extent the rider of a penny farthing must have been able to use the fixed pedals to control their speed. Even with that assistance, I find it hard to believe that brakes like this were very effective. Indeed, somebody pointed out to me yesterday that an effective brake on such a large wheel would just pitch the rider over the handlebars anyway.

"Taking a header" or "coming a cropper" was common, and could result in serious injury or even death. Apparently the term "coming a cropper" was lifted from horse-riding where it meant being thrown over the horses neck. In 1874 The Pictorial World reported "in truth bicycling is rather a dangerous amusement, but then it affords such excellent exercise". Indeed.

To reduce the risk riders would hook their legs over the handlebars when they were travelling downhill. Without helmets, the advantage was that if they were pitched over the handlebars they would be able to land on their feet rather than their head. The disadvantage (presumably) was that with their feet over the handlebars they couldn't use the pedals to slow their speed. So it was all down to the spoon brake.

In its heyday, what we know as a "penny-farthing" was just called a "bicycle". As better designs began to emerge, it became known as an "ordinary" bicycle. When designs much like today's diamond frame began to  supersede the penny-farthing they were known as "safety" bicycles. That makes more sense to me now.

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