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How it All Got Started: The History of the Electric Bike

Posted by Dina Llabore on

the history of electric bikes

Electric bikes have gained a lot of popularity in the recent years, however saying that an electric bike is a new or recent concept is misleading. The technology used in an electric bike has been claimed for a patent by various developers since 1800’s which means it is an over 120-year-old invention.

An electric bicycle or an e-bike is one that has attached to its rear wheel an electric motor. This motor helps or assists in pedaling and can thus be very helpful for a rider. This is especially beneficial for people who ride bikes uphill or other hard terrains that are difficult to navigate. 

The First Motorized Bicycle Makes its Debut

The history of electric bicyclesThe very first motorized bicycle that is believed to be the predecessor of the modern day e-bike was developed by two inventors who used a steam engine along with an internal combustion engine to power it. This happened sometime around 1870. 

A few decades later, during the end of 1895, Ogden Bolton Jr. was issued the first patent for an e-bike. However, his patent was regarding the improvements for the bike and did not consist of any new invention as such. Therefore, it is largely possible that it wasn’t his idea originally.

The next big upgrade of the e-bike came in 1897 when Hosea W. Libbey used two motors and batteries rather than one each while designing it. It was called the “double electric motor”. 

Innovations Continue into the Next Century

the history of electric bikesIn 1898, Mathew J. Steffens patented an e-bike that had a driving belt on the wheel’s outer edge. A U.S. patent was granted to John Schnepf in 1899 for a bike that was “roller-wheel” style bike driven rear-wheel. 50 years after this, Jesse D. Tucker was issued a patent. He developed a motor that allowed one to freewheel and also used internal gearing systems. The rider now had the option to choose whether he wanted to use the pedals together with the electric motor as a combination or not.

In the 1990’s, the development of torque motors and power controls came into the picture. Zike was sold as the only commercial e-bike that was available then, in 1992. Another device using power controls with torque motors was first patented in Japan in 1997.

In the 10 year period between 1994 to 2004, the production of e-bikes saw an astonishing rise of almost 35%. During the same period, the production of a normal bicycle fell dramatically. The new e-bikes used light and less bulky lithium batteries. The new power bikes that emerged in 2001 were called “pedelec”.

Modern Innovations with Today's E-Bikes

E-bikes have now been broadly classified into three categories - one is the bike with pedal assist, second is the bike with both pedal assist and power on demand and the third is the bike that only has power on demand.

Market analysis has shown that e-bikes are going to be capturing 65% of the bicycle market. There are various factors influencing this. Health benefits being the prime reason. A rapidly older population that wants to maintain their active lifestyle is also a factor. As well as an awareness among younger people about the planet and global warming.

The future of e-bikes looks very promising as more and more companies and models come onto the market with reduced prices because of competition and technological innovations. 

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