Electric bikes are undergoing a surge in popularity as commuters and couriers around the world embrace them as a cheaper and greener alternative to cars.
In the UK, electric bike sales grew by 20% in 2016 and are expected to continue their upward trajectory.
But electric bikes have been around since the Victorian era - so what’s changed? Our brief history of the electric bike charts its evolution into a popular form of modern transportation.
1881 Frenchman Gustav Trouvé is credited with inventing the first electric bike which was actually a tricycle with only a few watts of electricity, so it didn’t give riders much of a boost.
1895 The US Patent Office issued Ogden Bolton Jr a patent for his electric bike which had a hub motor in the rear wheel but no gears. The bike had a 10 volt battery in the triangle of the frame and produced 100 amps of electricity.
1897 Hosea W. Libbey of Boston was given a patent for his bike’s double electric motor which he placed inside the bottom bracket. It used the same principles as today’s Bosch drive system and Shimano STEPS but was less aesthetically pleasing.
1887 British bike brand Humber released an electric tandem bike.
1898 The first belt driven electric bike was designed.
1899 John Schnepf patented a friction-drive e-bike.
Early 1900s Electric bike developments largely stalled as cars became the main focus.
1930s Mass production of electric bikes began in the Netherlands, where they continue to be popular today.
1975 Japanese technology brought the next leap in the evolution of e-bikes as the Panasonic e-bike, which used 24V lead-acid car batteries, was invented. The batteries are cheap and easy to recycle but have a short lifetime.
1989 NiCad batteries were used in electric bikes for the first time in the Sanyo Enacle. Although these batteries have a great lifetime, they are expensive and hard to recycle.
1989 The electric bike as we know it today was invented when Swiss Michael Kutter created the Pedelec. Riders no longer needed to use a direct throttle control, instead pedalling caused the motor to kick in and assist the rider.
1990s Electric bikes were propelled into the modern world with lower weight lithium batteries, quieter and more efficient motors, and more effective torque sensors.
1992 The Sinclair Zike bike was marketed as a lightweight and portable e-bike but was a commercial failure as it was criticised for lacking power and being too unstable.
Early 2000s Batteries used in electric bikes became lighter and more efficient.
2004 Electric bike production was reported to have grown by 35% in less than 10 years.
2009 A third of all bikes sold in the Netherlands were electric.
2010 Electric bikes were now generating $11 billion as a global industry. Sales were booming in places like Germany, where postal employees were using them. They also grew in popularity among delivery workers in New York and commuters in China and Japan.
2014 Bosch introduced a bike with an integrated computer with a GPS system and touch screen control.
2015 By now motors had become so discreet that a report by the Cycling Independent Reform Commission expressed concern about them being used for mechanical doping in competitive cycling.
The future We expect e-bikes to become even more lightweight with cleaner designs, more power and further battery improvements.