Electric bikes are a new concept, right? Wrong! The very first electric bikes were around in the 1890s. Yes you did read correctly, 1890’s not 1990’s! Throughout that decade there are records of various patents for bicycles with electric power. As crude as they were, these were the very first electric bikes! In 1897 an electric bike was invented that housed a double electric motor in the crankshaft (not too dissimilar to the crank drive power systems in use today!). In 1898 there was an electric bike with a belt-drive to the rear wheel, and in 1899 there was a roller-drive to the rear! It seemed as though electric bikes were the way forward, so what happened?
Well in short, some bright spark invented the internal combustion engine. The said 'bright spark' was Francois Isaac de Rivaz of Switzerland, and the year was 1807. Unfortunately for Issac, his attempt was an epic failure. This is the reason that many today still regard Daimler or Benz as being the 'true' inventor of the combustion engine, many years later in 1885. Roughly the same time as our initial electric bike boom! The problem was that gas-powered engines were being developed quicker, made commercially available, and ultimately had a much bigger range. The early electric bikes were struggling on paltry 10v batteries and didn't go far at all. The First motorized vehicle, from Daimler, could manage a whopping 10mph top speed and had half a horsepower! For the following 100 years or so the gas-powered engine was the preferred way to power all vehicles.
Fast forward 100 years to the 1990's, and all of a sudden people are starting to look at alternatives to fossil fuels. Global warming is a recognised term, and there have been huge developments in electronics. Unlike the crude first attempts, we can now use and develop power controllers, torque sensors and bigger capacity batteries. Japan was the first country to start developing advanced systems, first of all the 'Zike', which was in the early 90's, then quickly followed by Yamaha, Honda and Panasonic all making crank-driven motor units. These were not cheap, but the bikes built in the 90's proved what can be achieved. Electric bikes had been commercially born!
The rest of the world soon caught on, and China started mass producing hub-based electric motors in large numbers. Electric bikes grew from being just one brand available commercially at the start of the decade, to around 50 brands available towards the end of the 90's.
A few more variations were tried, including a belt-drive system mounted on a pannier rack, a dynamo-style direct drive to the tyre and motors bolted to pannier racks. The main two accepted types were identified as the hub drive (motor situated within the wheel hub) and the crank drive systems. By the turn of the century, there were plenty of electric bikes on the market that could achieve 20 mile ranges, and climb steep hills.
The potential of electric bikes was quickly realised at this point. Brushless motors replaced the older brushed types, allowing more efficient, quieter operation. Lithium battery power was commonplace, enabling much lighter bikes with improved range. Torque sensors started to replace throttles, which made the ride more comfortable and much more natural feeling. Electric bikes have now evolved into the bikes you see today. Lightweight, good-looking and able to complete distances of up to 50 miles on a single charge. Electric bikes are now the fastest growing sector of the cycle industry, and with growing numbers on the road today, and the recent national press recognition it is only set to get even bigger!