When you head out in a big city, you’re likely to see an e-bike or two. The same goes for trails through the woods or suburban bike paths, as these products are everywhere due to their affordability and convenience. As e-bikes become more common in cities worldwide, it makes sense to learn about the technology. These bikes offer an energy-efficient method of getting around and don’t require a special license like a motorbike, making them incredibly accessible.
E-bikes seem like a modern invention, but the concept has been around for over a century. Inventors in the 1800s envisioned people traveling on battery-powered electric bicycles, but the popularity of automobiles and the convenience of combustion engines delayed this dream for decades. Here’s a look at the history of e-bikes and how these devices have reached mainstream status in 2023.
E-bikes have a surprisingly long history in Europe and the United States. Here’s some information on how these bicycles have evolved over the years to become the products we see on city streets today.
What Is an E-Bike
E-bike is short for electric bicycle, a bike equipped with an electric motor to assist the rider with pedaling. Typically, a sensor activates the motor when the rider begins pedaling, offering assistance, but some e-bikes use a throttle to give the rider more control over the speed.
These bikes are powered using a battery mounted somewhere on the unit. Modern e-bikes have lithium-based batteries, which can last several years without requiring replacement and allow you to recharge them before they die completely.
You can now find e-bikes in nearly every city on the planet, but it hasn’t always been that way. Despite their long history, e-bikes have only recently become popular, but they’re growing in prevalence in many locations.
The Earliest E-Bikes
Documents depicting e-bikes began showing up in patent offices in France and the United States in the 1880s and 1890s. Ogden Bolton Jr. was awarded one of the first patents in 1895 for his battery-powered bicycle with a motor mounted inside its rear wheel and the battery sitting on the frame.
In 1897, inventor Hosea W. Libbey developed an e-bike with a double electric motor. This motor featured many of the same components we see in the mid-drive motors found on modern electric bikes, making it a noteworthy innovation.
These inventors believed their electric bikes could eventually be helpful for travel within cities or even city to city as the technology improved. These bicycles looked to replace the horsedrawn carriages that remained prevalent in the period, but the bikes never attained that status.
None of these devices reached mass production levels, but they created the prototype for the industry’s future. The following decades would see e-bikes become more advanced and begin appearing in cities around the world.
20th Century Evolution
Perhaps the earliest example of a mass-produced e-bike is the Phillips Simplex Electric Bike. This bike appeared in Europe in 1932 and was powered by a 12V battery. Little is known about this bike, but it wasn’t very successful, despite its corporate backing.
Phillips made another bike in 1937 while teaming up with a company called Gazelle. The Phillips Gazelle e-bike only sold 117 units but was the industry’s most successful creation of the 1930s. Gazelle remains a leading name in the e-bike industry to this day, despite the relative failure of this product.
E-bikes were again forgotten after these disappointments in the 1930s. However, that changed in the 1970s when Japanese tech company Panasonic got involved. Sanyo would follow suit in the 1980s, opening the door for the most significant advancement yet: the pedal-assist system.
The First Pedal-Assist E-Bike
E-bike technology went even further in 1989 when a man named Michael Kutter equipped some of his personal bikes with pedal-assist systems. These systems allow the motor to assist with pedaling, making it easier for the rider.
Before pedal assist, e-bikes were more like electric motorcycles. This new technology opened these units to entirely new markets, as manufacturers could present them as bicycles instead of motorbikes.
Kutter would later assist the Velocity Company in designing and manufacturing its Dolphin Electric Bike, which hit the market in 1992. Other companies like Yamaha, AeroVironment, and GT Bicycles created throttle-less e-bikes in the 1990s, leading us to the path we’re on today with modern e-bikes.
The e-bike industry hadn’t yet become mainstream, but it was trending in that direction as the technology became more accessible. Yamaha and Panasonic began mass-producing e-bikes in the early 2000s, a clear sign of things to come for the industry.
It’s worth noting that e-bikes were extremely heavy in the 1990s, but new battery technology has made them far more manageable. These lightweight batteries are perhaps one reason for the immense popularity of e-bikes today.
Modern e-bike manufacturers realized the public wanted products with high-energy batteries and synchronous motors at low prices, so the industry evolved yet again. Products that once cost over $5,000 now cost about $1,200, making e-bikes accessible to a broader range of people.
More options are now available, too. Depending on their needs, riders can head into a shop and buy an electric mountain bike, micro bike, or fat tire bike, to name a few.
Products with cargo space are available for delivery drivers, while some models have multiple seats or compartments to keep children secure while the parent rides. Companies like Trek Bikes, VanMoof, and Rad Power make affordable options that appeal to many people, while Lemond and Propel make higher-end products for the serious rider.
Modern e-bikes take almost everything into consideration, giving the buyer a plethora of options. This innovative market is showing no signs of slowing, either – especially as prices become more affordable.
Buying an E-Bike
E-bikes are sold at nearly every bike shop worldwide as retailers and manufacturers have fully embraced these products. The result should be more innovation in the future.
Will your next bicycle purchase be an e-bike? Let us know in the comment section, and remember to share this post with the cyclist in your life.