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Electric bikes have been exploding in popularity and are undoubtedly the future of urban transport. But what you might not know is that the idea for electric bicycles is much, much older than you think.
In this article, we’ll be looking into the history of e-bikes, including who invented the first electric bike, when this was (it will surprise you), and when e-bikes started to take off.
Who Invented the Electric Bike?
The idea for the first electric bike dates way back to 1895 when American inventor Ogden Bolton Jr, not only imagined how an electric bicycle could work but secured a patent for the design.
As the 19th century neared its close, the world was in the throes of the Second Industrial Revolution. Innovations in electricity, transportation, and manufacturing were transforming daily life. Amid this backdrop of change, the idea of the electric bicycle was born.
The First Electric Bike
Ogden Bolton Jr., an innovator of his time, was intrigued by the possibilities electricity presented. Transport, especially in burgeoning urban centers, faced challenges. The traditional bicycle (which had been invented earlier that century) was gaining traction as a reliable means of transport, but Bolton believed he could enhance its efficiency using electric power.
His vision was to add a motor to a bicycle and integrate it seamlessly, preserving the bicycle’s essential character while enhancing its utility. He zeroed in on the rear wheel as the perfect location for his motor, ensuring the bike maintained its balance and aerodynamics.
His brainchild was the ‘6-pole brush-and-commutator direct current (DC) hub motor’. This was a motor built directly into the rear wheel’s hub, eliminating the need for external connections or transmissions. The design was simple yet effective: the motor drew power from a 10-volt battery, turning the rear wheel and propelling the bicycle forward.
However, the journey wasn’t without challenges. The technology of the time was nascent. Batteries were bulky and had limited capacity. Moreover, there wasn’t an established market for such innovations. The public was still warming up to automobiles, let alone electrically powered bicycles.
Yet, Bolton’s patent in 1895 marked a significant milestone. While his e-bike didn’t achieve mass commercial success immediately, it sowed the seeds for future innovators. It showcased that bicycles and electricity could be combined, setting the stage for the e-bikes we recognize today.
This early electric bicycle was a testament to human ingenuity and the spirit of innovation. Bolton might not have foreseen the e-bike boom of the 21st century, but his pioneering work undoubtedly paved the way.
Electric Bike History: A Timeline
1800s: Early E-Bike Patents and Designs
- In the final decade of the 19th century, the foundation for e-bikes was laid with multiple U.S. patents.
- In 1895, Ogden Bolton Jr. secured a patent for a battery-powered bicycle equipped with a “6-pole brush-and-commutator direct current (DC) hub motor” positioned in the rear wheel.
- Notably, in 1897, Hosea W. Libbey of Boston came up with an e-bike design propelled by a “double electric motor” located within the crankset axle’s hub.
- Fast forward to 1898, and we see Mathew J. Steffens patenting a rear-wheel drive e-bike utilizing a driving belt. Subsequently, in 1899, John Schnepf introduced an e-bike with a rear-wheel friction, “roller-wheel”-style drive.
1900s: E-Bike Technology Slowly Continues
- This era experienced a continuation of patent developments, with G.A. Wood’s 1969 invention standing out. It expanded on Schnepf’s earlier work, integrating four fractional horsepower motors connected through gears.
- In 1989, Yamaha, the Japanese automotive behemoth, crafted an e-bike prototype and, by 1993, innovated the pedal-assist system.
- The 90s saw a rise in commercial e-bikes, with Vector Services Limited launching the Zike e-bike in 1992, which had NiCd batteries incorporated into a frame member.
- Over a decade, starting from 1993, e-bike production grew around 35%. Torque sensors and power controls appeared in the late 90s, with significant patents like the Japanese patent (6163148) in 1997.
- Additionally, Lee Iacocca’s 1997 establishment of EV Global Motors, which introduced the E-Bike SX, marked an early attempt to popularize e-bikes in the U.S.
- By the late 1990s, the e-bike market started to grow quickly in China, with hundreds of thousands of e-bikes sold.
2000s: E-Bikes Become Available to the Masses
- As the 21st century dawned, battery technology evolved with e-bikes transitioning from lead-acid batteries to more efficient NiMH, NiCd, and Li-ion batteries. These newer batteries not only reduced weight but also increased range and speed.
- By 2001, terms like e-bike, power bike, pedelec, and pedal-assisted were commonplace, distinguishing them from more powerful “electric motorbike” models.
- In 2007, e-bikes comprised a significant 10 to 20 percent of two-wheeled vehicles in major Chinese cities, due to their low running costs compared to cars and motorcycles. Chinese e-bike sales were estimated to be around 20 to 30 million per year at this point, accounting for 90% of the global market share.
- In the early 2010s torque sensors and more advanced power controls providing a significant boost in riding experience. Around the same time brands like Bosch and Shimano entered the e-bike market.
- Also in the early 2010s, European and North American markets started showing interest in electric bikes.
- In 2012, the Specialized Turbo was launched. This was one of the first big name brands to release an e-bike and the model became a benchmark for performance in the industry.
- By the end of the 2010s, several million e-bikes had been sold in Europe and North America
- E-bike technology started evolving at a rapid pace around 2020, with many models also beginning to feature connectivity options to allow users to integrate their smartphones.
Global E-Bike Sales (2018 to 2022)
|2023 (forecasted)||31.9 million|
When Did the First E-Bike Go on Sale?
While the idea of an electric bicycle dates back to the late 19th century with numerous patents being filed, it took a while for the first commercial models to hit the market.
The exact date of the first e-bike sale is hard to pinpoint. However, by the early 20th century, several inventors and entrepreneurs were exploring the possibility of bringing their patented designs to the masses. It wasn’t until the later part of the 20th century, specifically in the 1990s, that we saw more commercial models being available for public purchase.
One notable early commercial model was the Zike e-bike introduced by Vector Services Limited in 1992. This e-bike featured NiCd batteries built into a frame member and was equipped with an 850 g permanent-magnet motor. These early e-bikes were primarily sold in niche markets and specialty stores, catering to early adopters and technology enthusiasts.
The reception of the early e-bikes was mixed. While they were appreciated for their innovative approach to urban mobility, there were challenges. The technology was in its infancy, meaning battery life, weight, and reliability were concerns. Moreover, the lack of infrastructure for electric vehicles, like charging stations, made it a bit cumbersome for daily use.
Sales numbers for these early models were modest. It was clear that while the concept had potential, technological advancements were needed for e-bikes to gain mainstream acceptance. However, these early models laid the groundwork for the e-bike boom that would come in the subsequent decades, especially with the improvement in battery technology and increased environmental awareness.
In summary, while the e-bike concept was envisioned as early as the late 1800s, the commercial sale and adoption of e-bikes began to pick up in the 1990s, with models like the Zike pioneering the movement. The road to widespread acceptance was paved with challenges, but these initial steps were crucial in bringing e-bikes to where they are today.