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The History of Electric Bikes and the Bicycle

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The bicycle, as we know it, evolved in the early 19th century thanks to several inventors that completely changed the concept of what a bike is or improved on an already established design. 

A German baron named Karl Von Drais made the first significant development in 1817 – but the bicycle was mostly a clunky wooden prototype that could only be powered by legs kicking the ground.

To truly understand the relationship between the traditional bicycle and the electric bike, it’s essential to study the history of all pedelecs. Although e-bikes were a concept in the 1890s, it wasn’t until the 1990’s that batteries were light enough to power them.

Let’s look at the earliest unverified bicycle, the invention of what we know as a ‘bicycle’ and it’s many improvements.

Finally, we’ll look at the electric bike and its switch from a bulky clunky transportation device to the incredible piece of technology it is today.

The Unverified History of the Bicycle

Before 1817, many inventors sketched up the concept of a bicycle. To qualify a piece of technology as a ‘bicycle,’ it has to be a human transport device with two wheels that requires balancing by the rider. 

A sketch done around 1500 AD attributed to Gian Giacomo Caprotti, a pupil of Leonardo da Cinci, was discovered in the modern era.

After some research by bicycle historian Hans-Erhard Lessing, it was determined to be a purposeful fraud. 

However, philologist and lexicographer Prof. Augusto Marinoni said otherwise. When he was tasked to look through the transcription of Leonardo’s Codex Atlanticus (a twelve-volume collection of DiVinci’s drawings), he determined it was likely an accurate drawing (see drawing here).

Another unverified drawing comes from a mostly undocumented artist Comte de Sivrac who developed something called the célérifère (see here) in 1792.

It resembled a Hobby Horse, had a seat, two wheels, and handlebars that could turn the front wheel. The rider would push the célérifère by pushing it along with their legs and feet.

Current historians state that there is no proof that the two-wheel célérifère existed, although there were four-wheeler versions.

The design was misinterpreted by Louis Baudry de Saunier, a well-known French journalist in 1891 while doing a collum for bicycle history.

The Birth of the Bicycle: 1817 to 1819

Photo Courtesy: Gun Powder Ma/Wikipedia

Baron Karl von Drais

The first bicycle belonged to Baron Karl von Drais, who acted as a civil servant to the Grand Duke of Baden. Called the Laufmaschine, Draisine, or draisienne, this wooden bicycle was created in 1817 and patented the next year. 

It was the first commercially successful two-wheel, steerable, human-powered machine that was later re-branded as the velocipede and often called the dandy horse or hobby-horse. It was documented that Drais wanted a new type of vehicle to reduce the reliance on horses.

On Drais’s first ride from Mannheim, he covered 8 miles (13 km) in less than an hour.

Constructed mostly of wood, the Laufmaschine weighed 48 lbs and had wheel bearings, iron-shod wheels, brass bushings, and rear-wheel brakes. 

Its popularity took off, but authorities soon limited its use because of the multiple accidents it caused. Still, many other inventors tried their hand at making new patented pedantic machines like the pedestrian curricle or the velocipede. 

Denis Johnson

However, the name didn’t stick. It wasn’t until the modern era that the word “bicycle” became a familiar name.

Hobby horse was popular as it resembled the children’s toy, and the dandy horse was used as a cheeky way to make fun of the foppish English men that frequently rode them.

Denis Johnson’s invention in 1818 was more elegant because of its serpentine shape instead of the straight Drais model.

In 1819, the hobby-horse became the next big craze in London but was cut short when dandies noticed their boots getting worn down during riding.

Regardless, Drais’s velocipede provided the basis for all other bicycles to follow. Later, a French metalworker in 1863 created the rotary cranks and pedals to the front wheel hub, which ushered in the birth of the bicycle as we know today.

Scottish Two-Wheel Inventions: 1830s

One of the first mechanically propelled two-wheel vehicles belonged to inventor Kirkpatrick Macmillan, a Scottish blacksmith who made his invention in 1839. His nephew confirmed that his uncle developed a rear-wheel-drive design using mid-mounted riddles that connected with rods to a rear crank.

The Tretkurbelfahrrad by Philipp Moritz Fisher: 1850s

Another German was in the center of a new invention. Philipp Moritz Fischer used the draisine at a young age to travel to and from school.

He created the first bike with pedals (called the Tretkurbelfahrrad) in 1853, which didn’t require the user to propel themselves with their legs.

Boneshaker or Velocipede: 1860s

Photo Courtesy: Unknown author/Wikipedia

French inventors changed the design of the velocipede in 1863. It used rotary cranks and pedals mounted to the front wheel. It was difficult to steer, but it was possible to hit faster speeds due to the pedals positioning and the reduced weight of the metal frame. 

These new additions made it possible to mass-produce the vehicle. Now, braking was possible due to the added metal components. In England, the velocipede earned the nickname “boneshaker” due to how it shook when riding on cobblestone rodes.

A patent made by Pierre Lallement means that the invention of pedals was given to him, although Fisher created pedals years earlier. Lallement’s patent drawing shows a machine that looks similar to Johnsons but with pedals and a rotary crank in 1866.

In the early 1860s, Pierre Michaux started producing parts for the velocipede on a large scale and created the Michaux company, which mass-produced bicycle parts. They dominated the industry for many years.

High-Wheel Bicycle: 1870s

The penny-farthing was the next big leap in bicycle innovation. It was high off the ground, contained one large wheel in the front and a small one in the back, and was capable of higher speeds and were primarily considered unsafe. 

At this point, the bicycle was considered a high-class symbol. It was priced way out of the range of an average working-class worker until the 1890s, where the price decreased significantly due to the accessibility of parts.

Safety Bicycle: 1880s and 1890s

Photo Courtesy: Unknown author/Wikipedia

The safety bicycle is widely thought of as the most critical change in the history of the bike. It shifted the way others saw bicycling as a dangerous hobby to an everyday transportation tool that anyone of any age could enjoy.

Although there were still safety issues with the original safety bicycle of 1884 (as it was still too high off the ground), it added a chain-drive front wheel. Inventors later experimented with a rear-wheel chain drive.

John Kemp Starley produced the first successful safety bicycle called the ‘Rover’ in 1885 but wasn’t patented. It had a steerable front wheel with a large caster and equally sized wheels and a chain drive to the rear wheel.

The Rover was imitated countless times and wholly replaced the high-wheeler as it was easier to ride on paved streets and dirt roads. However, it wasn’t as comfortable as the high-wheelers because of the smaller wheel size and lack of suspension. 

John Dunlop’s reinvention of the pneumatic bicycle tire helped create a smoother ride and made the complicated bicycle suspension obsolete. This also meant the diamond pattern became the most efficient design, which was later foldable after African American inventor Issac R Johnson lodged a patten for his design. 

The chain drive improved speed and comfort, which allowed for a smooth, relaxed, and injury-free pedaling experience. Riders could easily steer around corners due to its lighter design and simple construction.

The Invention of the Electric Bicycle: 1890s

Photo Courtesy: GaHetNa (Nationaal Archief NL)/Wikipedia

Electric bikes were documented within various U.S. patents. In 1895, Ogden Bolton Jr. created a patent for the first battery-powered bicycle with a 6-pole brush-and-commutator direct current hub motor mounted at the rear wheel.

At the time, this electric bicycle had no gears, and the motor could draw up 100 amperes from a 10-volt battery. It was very clunky and barely moved. All human-powered bikes at the time could maintain faster speeds that this primitive e-bike.

In 1897, Hosea W. Libbey invented an electric bike that propelled by using a double electric motor. It was designed within the hub of the crankset axle. This was reinvented in the 1990s by Giant Lafree e-bikes.

1898 saw a rear-wheel-drive e-bike that used a driving belt, and 1899 depicted a roller wheel style electric bicycle. Until the 1960s, electric bike inventions remained stagnant because the batteries and frames were too clunky, and the battery lasted less than an hour.

The Last of the 19th Century: Roadsters

By the 1890s, the roadster was pattened and well documented. Its design included a step-through frame rather than the diamond shape that the gentleman’s model had. This made it easy for ladies to mount the bicycle with dresses and skirts.

The frame was made of steel, the spokes were positioned lower (so dresses and skirts wouldn’t get caught) and had functional coaster brakes, drum brakes, or rim brakes. This design grew rapidly and was nicknamed the Dutch cycle, as 85% of all roadsters were produced in the Netherlands. The primary demographic was the British.

However, the decline of all bicycles was starting to occur – though mostly in the United States. There was a slight decline in the 1900s for Europe, but it still remained strong throughout the 1900s – 1940s.

The Decline in US Popularity in the Bicycle Market

Even to this day, Europeans still love the bicycle and the freedom it gives to its people. On the other end of the pond, the United States fell out of love with the bicycle, and its many renditions and innovations. 

Automobiles became the most preferred means of transportation due to their comfort. The average person didn’t need to use their own kinesthetic power to move a transportation device, which was attractive to many Americans – especially with the upper-class. 

In the 1920s, bicycles were gradually becoming children’s toys, and by the 1940s, most bikes were made for children. Europeans kept cycling as a mostly adult activity, and hobbies like bicycle racing, commuting, and cyclo-touring became popular activities.

Even after the invention of the automobile and motorcycle, the bicycle remained the preferred mode of transportation for Europeans. Manufacturers such as Raleigh, BSA, Philips, Carton, Hercules, and Rudge-Whitworth monopolized the market. 

Technical Innovations: 1900s to 1930s

Although there was stagnation compared to other years, bicycles continued to develop throughout the early 20th century. France developed many cyclo-tourist ventures for tourists, and in the 1930s, European racing organizations started to pop up. 

Gearing and the ability to shift gears became vogue. Now, the rear wheel had a sprocket on either side of the hub. Unlike modern models, riders had to stop, remove the wheel, flip it around and remount it to change gears.

World War II and Military Usage: 1940s 

Photo Courtesy: BreTho/Wikipedia

Although there were multiple-speed bicycles available on the market, military bicycles were single-speed. Paratroopers would drop bicycles to military men for their use, which created the term “bomber bikes.” 

Many units specifically used bicycles as a means for transportation, like the German Voksgrenadier. Their Invasion of Poland saw 196 bikes and 1 motorcycle. 41 companies specifically created bicycles for infantrymen. 

The Japanese used over 50,000 bicycle troops during the Malayan Campain. They were so popular and needed for Japanese military men that they confiscated them from Japanese citizens for their use. They would often carry 80 pounds of equipment while riding, whereas a British soldier could only carry a maximum of 40 pounds. 

The Flying Pigeon in China: 1950s/1960s to 1980s

One interesting point in the history of the bicycle was the invention of the flying pigeon, although it looked similar to all other 1950s cruisers at the time. It became a massive phenomenon in the People’s Republic of China and was one of the only government-approved means of transport.

The Flying Pidgeon became a status symbol to Chinese citizens along with a sewing machine and the watch. If you had all three, it meant that you were a well-to-do and classy person who has a significant amount of wealth. Chinese citizens couldn’t buy them fast enough.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Flying Pidgeon logo became the most popular mechanized vehicle on the planet. In 1986, over 3 million cycles were sold, and there was an incredibly long waiting list for a black model popular with workers. You needed to have good guanxi (loosely translated to connections and or relationships) to even purchase one. 

The North American Cruiser and Racer: 1950s, 1960s, 1970s

Photo Courtesy: Robert Bye/Unsplash

In Noth America, the cruiser and racer were among the most popular bicycle style. The cruiser, which was popular with hobby cyclists, had pedal-driven brakes, one gear, and balloon tires that helped with shock absorption. It was popular because of its comfort and durability.

Also in the 1950s, the racer became incredibly popular in North America. The racer, also called the sports roadster by Americans, became popular with adult cyclists that wanted an alternative to the cruiser. It was faster and better at climbing hills because of its lighter weight, narrow tires, multiple gears, and tall wheels. 

There was another surge in popularity for bicycling in the 1960s thanks to interest in exercising and an attitude shift to more energy-efficient transportation sources. This led to the 1970s bicycle boom, wherein 1975, over 17 million units were sold to Americans.

Increased sales were due in part to new cyclists who preferred European style bicycles, which were called ten-speeds, sport/tourers, or sports models. These lighter models were popular with racers and cycling enthusiasts. 

California and the Invention of BMX Bikes: 1970s

For a long while, the bicycle looked pretty much the same until the BMX was invented in California in the 1970s. The wheels ranged from 16 to 24-inches and were popular with teenagers because they wanted to imitate riding a motorcycle. 

At the time, the Netherlands imported BMXs to race around the road, which spawned the racing documentary On Any Sunday. It credits the BMX with the motorcycle boom of the 1970s and the popularity of BMXing as a sport, rather than just a hobby. 

California and the Invention of Mountain Bikes: 1970s

Photo Courtesy: Tobias Bjerknes/Unsplash

Another California invention, the mountain bike, first appeared in the 1970s but wasn’t mass-produced until 1981. The mountain bike’s intended use was for off-pavement or bumpy surfaces found during off-roading. 

It was a quick success, as it encouraged urban dwellers to escape their surroundings and inspired other extreme sports. Mountain bikes had a more upright seating position and better front and rear suspension. 

The European Bicycle Market: 1970s – 1990s

The British utility roadster was declining in popularity in the 1970s as recreational cycling became more popular. Now, lightweight bikes that weigh less than 30 pounds were the most affordable sportbike on the market and were also used for racing.

Swedish manufacturer Itera invented a bicycle made entirely out of plastic, but it failed. Instead, the U.K. switched from road-only to all-terrain bicycles. Mountain bikes were incredibly popular because of their versatility. By 1990, the roadster was practically dead.

Developments in the E-Bike Sphere: 1990s – 2000s

Unlike the traditional bike, the history of the e-bike spans only 40 combined years. Recently, e-bikes have exploded in popularity because of their lower price and accessibility. Yamaha built one of the earliest prototypes in 1989, which looks very similar to the modern e-bike.

Power controls and torque sensors were developed in the 1990s, while Vector Service Limited created and sold the very first e-bike called Zike in 1992. It included a NiCd battery that was built into the frame and included an 850 g magnet motor. However, there were barely any available, and it isn’t clear why. It may be because they were expensive to produce.

Yamaha invented the first pedal-assist system in 1993. On the other side of the world, American car icon Lee Iacocca founded EV Global motors in 1997. EV Global produced an e-bike named E-bike SX, and it was one of the earliest efforts to popularize the concept.

Bulky e-bikes at the time had lead-acid batteries, while new models adopted NiMH, NiCd, and lithium-ion. Lithium-ion was one of the most important breakthroughs in e-bike technology because it helped to increase the speed and range of the vehicle. 

Modern Day E-Bikes and Their Surge in Popularity 

Photo Courtesy: Tower Electric Bikes/Unsplash

In 2001 electric bicycles were popular enough to have nicknames such as pedal-assisted, pedelec bikes, power bikes, and power-assisted bicycles. Now, the term e-motorbike or electric motorcycle refers to models that exceed 50 mph (80 km/h)

In 2007, e-bikes were thought to make up 10 to 20 percent of the market, while now they make up about 30%. A typical unit has an 8-hour charge battery, an average range of 15-25 miles, and can hit speeds of 20 mph (36 km/h).

There are currently multiple classes for e-bikes, including class 1, class 2, and class 3, which each determines where you can ride them and whether or not you need a license. Although this is implemented in Europe, these laws only exist in a few US states.

The Popularity of the Modern E-Bike

Since 1998, e-bike usage has seen rapid growth. China is the world’s largest producer of e-bikes, according to data from the China Bicycle Association. In 2004, China sold over 7.5 million e-bikes worldwise, which doubled from the previous year.

There are over 210 million electric bikes used daily in China, which is said to increase to 400 million in the next 10 years. In Europe, over 700,000 e-bikes were sold in 2010, but that number rose to 2 million in 2016. Now, the EU has implemented a 79.3% protective tariff on imported Chinese e-bikes to protect EU producers who seek to keep Europe as a primary market.

Are you an e-bike enthusiast?

Are you interested in many other articles, like this one, that gives an in-depth history of bicycle history?

Browse the site for more information on the best electric bikes and scooters that can make your commute more stylish and fun. 

Before you go, leave a comment on what you think about the history of e-bikes and bicycles in general, or read one of our other articles about e-bikes.

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