Electric bikes and bicycles alike serve many purposes in our world. Some are considered a tool with which the rider makes a living or a mode of transportation with roots in a cleaner technology. For others, it simply serves a recreational or leisurely purpose or as a way to experience the world around them. With over one billion bicycles in the world and 40 million of them expected to be electric bikes by 2023, it is incredible to see how far electric bikes have come and just how far they can take us.
Ogden Bolton Jr. Battery powered Bike (U.S. Patent 552271), 1895
The very first electric bicycles were documented in the 1880’s and 1890’s in the patent offices in both France and the United States. In France, one of the earliest was a three wheeled electric contraption, the motor power controlled with a hand-held lever system without any pedals.
In the United States, one of the first patents was awarded to Ogden Bolton Jr. in 1895 for a battery-powered bicycle that had its hub motor mounted inside the rear wheel and a battery sitting inside the main triangle of the frame, which is not too different in concept to some modern electric bikes (image above). As time began to pass, more designs and bikes entered the world, some of which represent the foundational ideas behind many of our present day machines. In 1897, Hosea W. Libbey of Boston invented an electric bicycle that was propelled by a "double electric motor" (image below). The motor was designed within the hub of the crank set axle. This model follows similar principles of design and operation to present day mid-drive motors we see on some bikes.
Hosea W. Libbey Electric Bicycle (U.S. Patent 596272), 1897
With creative and industrious minds working, many designs for electric bikes were drafted but many of them never reached production, often sitting in patent offices and on the drawing board until they expired or were discarded. Due to the explosion in growth and popularity of the automobile and combustion engines, electric bicycles were left on paper for the most part.
Phillips Simplex, 1932
Through the middle of the 20th century, electric bikes began to experience their earliest occurrences of mass production. Europe was one of the first places to see these early adoptions with higher production levels and greater usage. One of the first was a collaboration between Philips and Simplex to create the 1932 Phillips Simplex Electric Bike (image above). As time wore on, Japanese technology and manufacturing entered the field of electric bikes with the 1975 Panasonic and the 1989 Sanyo Enacle. These bikes were still using lead-acid and NiCad batteries, respectively, which were heavier than the newer, lower weight battery compositions. The benefits of new players in the world of ebikes led to greater innovation and creation of more electric bikes.
In 1989, one of the most important innovations was created in the form of the first ‘Pedelec’ or Pedal Electric Cycle (now known as pedal-assist) in which the motor power is triggered as assistance when any pedaling action is registered by the bike. Rather than using a throttle mechanism to control the motor, as all previous models had, this allowed riders to utilize an electric bike not so dissimilar to how one would ride a regular bike. Michael Kutter developed these pedelec systems on a few of his own personal bikes (image below) but then went on to assist the Velocity Company in creating the 1992 Dolphin Electric Bike for consumers to purchase. Following Kutter’s pedelec bicycles, pedal assist has become commonplace for modern electric bicycles. Some companies opt for the throttle-style assistance whereas some opt for the pedal assistance, with some companies building both technologies into their designs (like us!). Further improvements have been made into modern electric bikes as well in the form of Lithium-Ion batteries to increase capacity while keeping overall battery weight significantly lower than some of its competitors and predecessors.
One of Michael Kutter’s first pedelecs
As time went on, further technologies were introduced ranging from different styles of sensors to power controls in the late 1990s. Still at this time, though, fewer electric bikes were available to purchase with regular bikes maintaining control of the market. Leading up to the turn of the 21st century, production of electric bikes began to really grow, picking up greater traction in a market traditionally dominated by regular bicycle production and use. By 2001, the terms "ebike," "power bike," "pedelec," "pedal-assisted," and "power-assisted bicycle" were commonly used to refer to electric bikes.
Today, worldwide production and usage of electric bicycles is steadily rising with riders new and old integrating ebikes into their lives. With the assistance of an electric motor, biking is now considered more accessible to riders of all ages and backgrounds. Even mountain biking is growing in popularity due to the addition of ebikes and fat tire bikes, making it possible for more people to participate in the sport. Commutes by bike that would be too far, too long, or too slow are made possible with an ebike. Many other modern ebikes are designed with city riding and commuting use in mind. With the benefits, comfort, and efficiency of ebikes, combined with the componentry and infrastructure designed to get people from point-A to point-B, many riders have adopted an electric bike for day-to-day city riding.
In addition to people’s day to day transportation, electric bikes offer a cleaner alternative of transport for commerce and products. With cargo bikes and commercial trikes revolutionizing the way commerce flows, no longer are racks on bikes just for a change of clothes or a personal bag. Electric bikes allow their riders to leverage efficiency and maneuverability of a bicycle but harness the power of their motor to greatly enhance the capacity for transporting heavy cargo and goods both near and far.
With electric bikes, people can ride for pleasure, they can ride to work, or they can ride for work. But even more powerful is the fact they have the ability to change the way people live their lives and have shown time and time again to do so. A history and a legacy of trial-and-error, countless designs, and a multitude of models, styles, and applications, electric bikes have come a long way in a hundred and twenty years. Even more exciting than the history is the future of ebikes and where they will be able take us.