History of Electric Bikes: Where Did Ebikes Come From?
July 02, 2022
History of Electric Bikes
What is the history of electric bikes? Electric bikes serve many purposes in our modern world. They are used for recreation, personal transportation, and work. With over one billion bicycles in the world, 40 million of these are expected to be electric bikes by the year 2023.
The very first electric bicycles were developed in the late 1880s, with patents filed in both France and the United States. In France, one of the earliest models 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. As time passed, more designs for ebikes entered the market, some of which represent the foundational ideas behind many of our present day e-machines. In 1897, Hosea W. Libbey of Boston invented an electric bicycle that was propelled by a double electric motor. 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 ebikes.
Through the middle of the 20th century, electric bikes began to move into mass production. Europe was one of the first places to see 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.
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 use 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, and 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.
Torque sensors and power controls were developed in the late 1990s. For example, Takada Yutky of Japan filed a patent in 1997 for such a device, and in 1992 Vector Services Limited offered and sold an e-bike dubbed Zike. The Zike bike included NiCd batteries that were built into a frame member and included an 850 g permanent-magnet motor. Despite the Zike, in 1992 hardly any commercial ebikes were available.
Yamaha, a Japanese automotive giant built one of the early prototypes of e-bike back in 1989 and invented the pedal assist system in 1993. Production grew from 1993 to 2004 by an estimated 35%. By contrast, in 1995 regular bicycle production decreased from its peak 107 million units.
American car icon, Lee Iacocca founded EV Global motors in 1997, a company that produced an electric bicycle.
About the Author
Steve M. Appleton, Founder Really Good Ebikes
With a background in environmental planning, Steve took his passion for sustainable development and started Really Good Ebikes, an online ebike store where he helps people find the best ebikes for their needs, and partners with ebike business entrepreneurs. He is the author of TheBeginner's Guide to Ebikes, published on Kindle in 2020. Steve is passionate about animals, and spends part of each day volunteering at the local animal shelter.