The history of the electric bicycle is much older than you might think. While the current growth of light electric vehicles (LEVs) is a modern phenomenon, electric bicycles – in some form or another – have existed since the late 1800’s.
The non-electric bicycle was invented in Europe during the mid 19th century. The exact inventor of the first bicycle is unknown. But what isn’t unknown is that people loved them! By the end of the 1800’s bicycles were everywhere! It truly was the golden age of bicycles.
During this golden period numerous innovations were made to the bicycle, such as the “freewheel” functionality, which allows the bicycle to move forward without the pedals spinning.
Due the popularity of the bicycle in Europe, many Americans in the late 1800’s began patenting motorized versions of the bicycle. The history of the scooter and bicycle diverge here onto separate paths, as consumers preferred the idea of a motorcycle to an electric bicycle at the time. For 100 years the electric bicycle would go into a period of dormancy.
But we’re jumping ahead of ourselves. Let’s take it back to very beginning, in France in 1881.
The First Electric Bicycle Patents
In 1881, Gustave Trouvé, a French scientist, performed experiments with electric drive. “He used a British tricycle called a Starley Coventry Lever Tricycle.” So the first bicycle was actually a tricycle!
In 1895, an American named Ogden Bolton came along and filed a patent for his version of an electric bicycle. Bolton’s model contained a direct-drive rear hub-motor. “DD hubs remain relevant because they can be powered at very high watt-levels that would break bicycle chains, and they also remain one of the quietest drives.”
Charles Theryc then filed another patent in 1896 following Bolton’s. Theryc’s model improved upon Bolton’s hub motor by increasing the power and energy efficiency of the motor.
Then (woof this a lot of patents!) in 1897, another American named Hosea W. Libbey patented an electric bicycle that contained numerous improvements upon all of the proceeding models. Libbey’s design allowed for a smaller non-hub motor to provide the same power as a larger motor located in the wheel. And while his model did not contain pedals, it still used the same principles of bicycle technology, namely two crank arms.
Electric bicycles made the news on May 22, 1897 when two French bicycle racers, named Dacier and Jalabert, rode a tandem electric bicycle invented by two other Frenchman – de Clerc and Pingault. Is there anything more French than tandem bicycle racing!
Patents continued to be filed by different western inventors over the next few years, most notably by John Schnepf in 1899. Schnepf’s design featured a “direct-drive motor that is concentric with a shaft that powers a roller atop the rear tire to make a “friction drive.”
Over the next half century many other patents and innovations occurred with electric bicycles, although none of the models produced found any widespread commercial appeal. During this time, Europe saw the production of the 1932 Philips Simplex E-bike and the Dutch Junker.
WWII and Other Gas Crises Spark Continuous Innovation of the E-Bikes
During WWII, the fuel crisis sparked an increased interest in electric powered vehicles, as an alternative to gasoline powered vehicles. T.M. McDonald and Argyris Stefanos both filed patents during this time. Both patents contained notable improvements upon the existing technology.
After the end of the war, interest in electric powered vehicles waned, only to be reignited by the gasoline crisis of 1973. The years following 1973 were of extreme importance as far as the technology behind electric bicycles is concerned.
In 1975, Augustus B. Kinzel also filed a patent that mounted the motor around the BB-spindle. This was the first electric bicycle that could use gears to climb hills.
Charles P.D. Davidson and Peter W. Leighton then followed up on Kinzel’s improvements and filed a patent for an electric bicycle that contained a “compact BB-drive with a cylindrical motor driving a 90-degree reduction, and it incorporates a freewheel so the motor is not driven when you pedal with the motor unpowered.”
Without these technical innovations and sluggish crawl of patents, the electric bicycle boom of the 1990’s would never have occurred.
The 1990s Electric Bicycle Boom
The electric bicycle did not truly take off until the invention of the Pedal Assist System (PAS) by Michael Kutter in 1989. Pedal Assist Systems work by assisting the rider as they pedal. The rider must be pedaling to receive any added power, i.e. there is no throttle. A notable model that incorporated the PAS is the 1993 Yamaha PAS.
The mass production of neodymium magnets and lithium batteries led us into the modern age of the electric bicycle. Torque sensors, hub motor improvements, and power controls improvements were also vital to the electric bicycle’s success.
Also, as environmental awareness spread across the world in light of the harmful effects induced by man-made climate change, electric vehicles became seen as a popular green alternative to the gas and diesel powered vehicles that contributed huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
Modern Day E-Bike Innovations
E-bikes have continued to evolve since the 90’s. For instance, many e-bikes, as seen featured by Genesis, are lightweight and foldable for easy transportation. All of Genesis Electric Bicycle models also use lithium-ion batteries and are 100% emissions free.
So now that you’ve brushed up on the history of the electric bicycles, it’s time to get riding!