A World of Bicycle Information
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When people started attaching pedals to wheels to make bicycles, speed became important. People wanted more speed, yet one can turn the cranks only so fast. However, by using larger diameter wheels, people could go faster. Soon bikes started appearing with wheels that were as large as possible, where one could sit over the wheel and barely reach the pedals. They were faster, but ridiculously dangerous. They weighed a lot, hard to get started, difficult to maneuver, and if a rider stopped quickly, that person would find himself (women didn't generally ride these early bikes) flying over the handlebars, heading head-first into the shrubbery. That is, if the rider was lucky enough not to get tangled in the equipment on the way down.
These large wheel bikes became very popular, especially among young men who liked to race them, and were often called "ordinary racers," a name which was soon shortened to "ordinaries."
People also called them "high-wheelers," "bone shakers," and "penny-farthings," named after large and small coins of the era.
Because they were so dangerous, alternatives were sought. People tried putting the little wheel in front. They tried constructing tricycles and even quadracycles with large wheels.
Another experiment involved moving the wheels off the wheel and into a central location, then using a chain to turn the rear wheel. This proved a great advantage, because a large sprocked could be attached to the pedals, and a small one to the rear wheel. One turn of the cranks could make the wheel spin several revolutions. Voila, people now had the provision for all the speed they could muster. Because these were much safer than "ordinaries," people took to calling them "safeties."
See also: How to Ride a Penny-Farthing.