Electric bikes are hot news these days. People are taking a real interest in them with rising fuel prices and increased ecological awareness. More than just commercial popularity though they are beginning to appear more in mainstream news. Often talking about how they can reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and take part in the decarbonisation effort. Online maps are even starting to accommodate cyclists a lot more. While that last point isn’t just about electric bikes, the fact that electric bikes can replace cars that much easier certainly doesn’t hurt.
Electric bikes have actually been around for quite a long time though. Longer than you’d expect. Admittedly nowhere near as much as they are now. If we’re perfectly honest a lot of the earlier designs simply didn’t have the technology to work. All the same we think it’s good to know our history so we decided to look back at the history of electric bikes.
The First Electric Bike
The earliest Electric bikes first started appearing in patents during the 1890’s. Take this example from 1895. It was put in by Ogden Bolton Jr., used a 10V battery from which it could draw 100 amperes. Several other patents were put through and approved in the same decade. There might be earlier versions than this somewhere but it’s the oldest I’ve found. That was nearly 130 years ago.
Bolton attached a DC motor to the back wheel of the bike. This motor had 6 poles and, as we’ve said, it took up to 100 amps from the 10 volt battery. The battery would be attached under the horizontal tubing on the frame.
Honestly I’m not sure what kind of battery Bolton used on his bike. If I were to hazard a guess though I would say it was a zinc-carbon carbon battery. At the time these were relatively new technology and the first battery to not use free liquid electrolytes. Earlier batteries would have had problems with the motion of the bike.
For all appearances Bolton created an electric bike. That’s pretty cool. It wasn’t without problems though as you might have guessed. Ogden’s motor had no gears, nor the technology for a direct drive motor. This meant there was a huge amount of torque and probably a very limited battery life. On top of that Ogden didn’t include any pedals to aid the motor or even to cycle the bike once the battery died.
Was It Really The First Electric Bike?
It really depends on what you mean. Bolton’s bike definitely seems to be the first electric bike design that was patented. On the other hand we don’t have evidence of these bikes actually being cycled. Bolton himself may have made a prototype but as far as a commercially available electric bike I have my doubts.
What it does show is that this idea has been on the mind of innovators for a very long time now. And why not really? The technology might not have been there but the idea itself isn’t a massive leap. I mean the idea for cars was motorised horse carriages. Why not a bike?
The Next Iteration
It was only two years after Bolton’s patent, in 1897, that the next electric bike was created by Hosea W Libbey of Boston. Libbey’s improvements consisted of a mid drive system. This would have made the bike much better balanced for cyclists letting them travel much more easily.
Here is another example where I couldn’t find evidence of manufacture or use. However there is another interesting part to Libbey’s patent. The following quote from him tells us something:
“To all whom it may concern:
Be it known that I, HOSEA W. LIBBEY, a citizen of the United States, residing at Boston, in the county of Sufiolk and State of Massachusetts, have invented certain new and useful Improvements in Electric Bicycles, of which the following, taken in connection with the accompanying drawings, is a specification.
The object of my invention is to produce a bicycle to be propelled by electricity generated by primary batteries and in motors therefor.”
Electric bikes were already a talked about idea of the time. In fact Libbey addresses how his patent improves on previous designs. Sure we’ve covered the Bolton model but this hints at a tradition of electric bike design well ahead of its time.
As a brief sidenote Libbey’s design would be repurposed and manufactured in the 90’s.
Not Long After
After only a year on 8th November 1898, Mathew J. Steffens filed a patent application. Steffans had in fact created a drive belt. The belt was attached to the fork and the outside edge of the wheel. It would be operated by a pulley system and connected to a motor. At this stage they are really only lacking the battery technology and some more efficient motors.
Steffans wasn’t the only one to patent an electric bike in 1898 either. Even earlier in February Gordon J. Scott patented a very odd design. See, Scott’s bike didn’t use a battery to power the motor, instead pedalling would charge a generator which would be used to power a motor. This might strike you as completely missing the point of an electric bike making cycling easier. You would probably be right.
The Friction Drive
Just one year later in 1899 John Shnepf patented his friction drive design. Shnepf mounted a motor battery and pulley system onto a regular bike. The motor would act on the pulley which was to be put in contact with the wheel.
There are some problem in this design. It just isn’t as energy efficient as other motor types for one. On top of that the speed at which it rotated and the friction by which it worked really shortens the lifespan of tyres.
A Long Hiatus
There is a long gap in the records now. While there had been a rapid development of electric bikes in the late 1800’s this pretty much stopped. The advancements of internal combustion engines and the marketing of automotive manufacturers made people shift interest to cars. Which in all fairness were definitely ahead of the game on E-bikes at the time.
I’m not saying no one was tinkering with the idea or that no new patents were filed. But electric bikes almost ceased to be a thing for a long time.
Phillips Electric Bikes
In 1932 Phillips released a 12V failure of a bike called the Phillips Simplex. This bike has fallen into the mists of history. But they would try again in 1937. This time they partnered up with bike industry leader Gazelle. Together they would produce another failure which would barely sell more than a hundred units.
Although both of these bikes were failures it tells us that on some level there was renewed interest in electric bikes. At the very least there was hope that electric bikes could fill some kind of niche. Unfortunately the technology still wasn’t up to scratch.
We’re skipping a couple of novel ideas here. Like a reimagining of the friction drive design and the Giant Lafree reimagining of Libbey’s design. But I want to skip ahead to the 90’s and the creation of some key pieces of technology. The big contribution to electric bikes in the 90’s were power controls and torque sensors. This meant that electric bikes were becoming more reactive to riders. Rather than set speed motors the pedalling of the rider controls the amount of power the battery puts out to drive the bike forward.
I want to take a minute to acknowledge the Zike. Again this was a commercial failure. It was however the first mass produced electric bike the world would see. Using nickel–cadmium batteries, which were much lighter than the lead acid batteries that came before. It could also be recharged on mains power in about an hour. Lasting between half an hour and three hours depending on which of three assistance levels were used. The Zike would reach up to 15mph. For all intents and purposes the Zike seemed like an -albeit sub standard- electric bike of today. Unfortunately it was considered too unstable and low powered for many.
When we look back into the past we can see how far electric bikes have come. And the Zike wasn’t exactly the pinnacle design. Through the 90’s a few other bikes were produced. But it wasn’t until batteries were improved further with lithium-ion and similar that electric bikes really became viable.
Today electric bikes are more popular than ever, but people still have very valid complaints about them. I’m certain that new technologies will be created and implemented to improve what we have today.