Early Tallbikes

In the days of the pennyfarthing, riding your bike six feet off the ground was considered quite 'Ordinary'. Men and women had gotten around at that height for centuries, first on horseback and then on carriages. It was making a short bike that was unusual, and so these were called 'dwarf safeties'. Originally it was the quest for speed that sent cyclists up into the air, as a larger wheel was the only way to increase the distance you traveled per pedal revolution. This page is dedicated to recording the history of bikes that are tall for height's sake, because face it it's damn fun and it gets attention. I'm trying to collect every picture I can find of tallbikes from the late 1800s until 1990 when the modern mutant bicycle culture began.

Most of these came from Victorian and Edwardian Cycling & Motoring From Old Photographs By A.B. Demaus or from the personal collections of The Wheelmen. Special thanks to Cigdem for her contributions.

When the safety was invented, the deadly pennyfarthings were frowned upon and even outlawed. (Lil Phil of the Wags has been prosecuted for tallbiking on ancient anti-pennyfarthing legislation in Minneapolis) But they'd come in quite handy for lighting gas lamps. Thus the invention of the lamplighter, the precursor to the modern tallbike.


Check out the torch attached to the frame on this one:


This picture makes me suspicious. That torch looks a little out of place. It's not there on other pictures of this bike at the The Metz Bicycle Museum, where this bike currently resides. I wonder if somebody added the torch and that's what led to Boneshaker Magazine declaring that the lamplighter was a hoax. However, I think there is enough photographic evidence here to show that tallbikes have been around for at least 110 years.

Eventually people began to make taller bikes for exhibition, promotion, or festivals:




This photograph comes from Märkvärdigheter ur Naturen, Historien och Lifvet, published in Chicago in 1899 and edited by J.G. Princell. I would love it if somebody could translate the text:
"Sedan kommer Eiffeltornscykeln; visserligen ej så hög som tornet ifråga, men dock allt för hög att åkas af andra än våghalsar. Sådana finnas dock i mängd, och derför kan man understundom i större städer få se personer åka på en sådan bicykel. Vi ha sett den här i Chicago, och som de måste gå saktaoch försigtigt och alltid väck uppmärksamhet, äro de goda skyltar och vanligtvis försedda med plakat, som annonserar någon slags vara -- oftast cigarrer, hvadan man kan antaga att det endast är förtjensten som lockar någon att åka på dem."

Here's another picture of it:


Here's one of my favorite finds, an old ad from the Chicago Bicycle Directory. I'm interested in the fact that, 109 years ago, they were making tallbikes on 31st street in Bridgeport... six blocks away from the Rat Patrol chop shop on 37th street!

Paris tallbike plus an Ultimate Wheel.

Click on the picture below to see an astounding video of a 1915 'bunk bed' vertical tandem:

Now here's an old video of a bear riding a tallbike. And you think YOU'RE the shit. Bears aren't exactly the most agile of creatures, and they can do it...

Hard to tell if there are pedals, but this is the only tall motorcycle I've ever come across.

Now here's a very special treat. This article was published in Popular Mechanics in April 1964. Legend has it that this is the article that Jake took to Per to ask him for help in building the first Hard Times tallbike. CHVNK 666 was making flipped frame tallbikes around the same time, too, but Per is generally credited with coming up (or say popularizing) with the double-triangle design (given that it's hard to 'invent' something that some lone wolf was doing 100 years ago) . I don't know if Jon Brown invented the flipped-frame tallbike, but this article certainly spawned a lot of tallbiking in the 60s and 70s and is the reason old dudes will yell "Upside-down bike!" when they see you tallbiking, something that baffled me for years.

special thanks to Greg for finding this for me

Here's some clown. This appears to be taken from a newspaper in the 80s at a local 'Catfish Days' festival. I hate clowns.
Despite the clear evidence of height in the last century, Guiness for the longest time considered Frankencycle to be the World's Tallest Bike at 11'6". I think he held that record for 20 years. Then Atomic Zombie got the record at 12 feet, even though the six-high WTB that the BLBC had in the 90s was six inches higher. Right after AZ got the record, some Scallywag in Canada built Closer My God To Thee at 18 feet. I think the inevitable escalation of museum pieces that ride once a year is pretty boring, given that the World's Tallest Unicycle is over 110 feet and must be held up with a crane (although I'll give AZ credit for inventing the Skywalker method of breaking the generally-acknowledged ceiling that you can't freemount on anything higher than a four-high). Still, I'd be much more interested in seeing the World's Most Ridden Tallbike.
This page is dedicated to Amber, who died on a tallbike; and Lil Bob, the inventor of the Mountain Tallbike. Ride in Peace.

Check out more old-timey wacky bikes at A Speculative History of the Rat Patrol.