The Origins Of The Modern Ebike

Hang on, we are going way back in time to get to where we are today.

Aerial Bicycle by American inventor S T Hachenberger drawing.
1885: The aerial bicycle was devised by American inventor S T Hachenberger, to utilize the newly erected telephone poles and wires for transportation. The vehicle was equipped with a small electric motor and was suspended from from a cable running parallel to the telephone wires. Used on a trial track, the idea was soon abandoned.Three Lions/Getty Images

To understand how we got to the modern electric-assist bicycle that we enjoy riding today, it’s important to go back in time. Way back, in fact. Because from the vantage point of the early 21st century, we tend to forget what a revolutionary development the bicycle was in the 19th century.

How did bicycles change transportation?

The bicycle was the first personal transport device that opened the world, offering speeds three times and more than that of walking, speeds faster than that of horses. Horses walk at only 4 mph, and using a horse for much higher average speeds over long distances requires relay stations and horse swaps, as used by the Pony Express. Even early bicycles could exceed 10 mph for sustained periods, and required no stable or provisions. Well, the bicycle rider certainly required a decent meal, but this was much more satisfying that feeding a horse. Or cleaning up after one.

In the 1890s, bicycles were the internet, smartphone, and computer of their era; everyone with an entrepreneurial spirit and mechanical savvy seemed to try out the business. It’s no surprise that the first airplane was built by a couple of bicycle mechanics (Orville and Wilbur Wright) because they were already operating at the front edge of early 20th century tech. Ball bearings, pneumatic tires, chain drive, and many other technologies created or refined by the early bicycle industry also went on to provide the foundation for the automobiles and motorcycles that followed.

Early motorcycles were just bicycles with internal combustion engines added. There are patents from the 1890s applying electric motors to bicycles, and electric bicycles were built during that period, just as a decade or so later electric automobiles competed with early and crude internal-combustion-powered cars. These early electric bicycles were more like mopeds though. While they still had pedals, the electric motor was intended as a primary source of propulsion, and control of the electric motor was independent of pedaling.

Electric cycle with side-car on the square of the Opera. Paris, February 1941.
Electric cycle with side-car on the square of the Opera. Paris, February 1941.LAPI/Roger Viollet/Getty Images

When were eBikes first made?

MBK presents the 1st Electric Bike In France On July 25, 1995.
MBK presents the 1st Electric Bike In France On July 25, 1995.Marc DEVILLE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

The first eBikes recognizable as a pedal-assist pedelec came in the 1990s. There was an early effort in the early 1990s by Michael Kutter in Switzerland that created a throttleless eBike with power controlled by pedaling, and Yamaha produced a similar machine in 1993. In the US, AeroVironment (the company founded by Paul MacReady, famous for his record-setting human-powered aircraft) and GT Bicycles collaborated to create the GT Charger, a pedal-controlled eBike powered by lead-acid batteries. It was heavy at 65 pounds, and when I rode one in 1997, the assist was interesting but not impressive as is the power on the best current eBikes. But the trail was being broken.

The EV Warrior, an electric bicycle on display during a press conference for the American Lung Association of Ventura County for Clean Air Month.
View of the rear of the "EV Warrior" an electric bicycle that was on display during a press conference for the American Lung Association of Ventura County "kick off" Clean Air Month. The conference took place at Oxnard High School. The EV Warrier has a range of 15 miles and can reach speeds of 20 mph. It cost between $1300 and $1900.Steve Osman/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The three principal technologies that emerged to make modern eBikes possible and popular were:

  1. Affordable, high-energy lithium-ion batteries

  2. Capable power electronics to control synchronous motors

  3. Inexpensive, light, and high-torque permanent magnet motors

(To read in more detail about the amazing tech that makes eBikes work, click here.)

Constable Andrea Clayton with the electric bike unveiled by the Durham Police force.
Durham Police force unveiled the latest means of transport, an electric bike to make life easier around Co Durham. Constable Andrea Clayton, 28, shows off the first of its kind at Ferryhill.Owen Humphreys - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

Sony introduced the 18650 lithium-ion cell in 1993, but prices for that were almost $3,200 per kWh at the time. Since then, the price has fallen by about a factor of 25 after the 18650 cell became ubiquitous in many consumer electronics applications, like 1990s and early 2000s laptops, and then Teslas. Similarly, the energy density has more than tripled since that first Sony cell. These batteries were the key. Current e-bikes like Stromers and Fuell Fluids carry over 1kWh battery options that weight about 10 pounds. Lead-acid batteries with that capacity would be 80 pounds, much more than the weight of entire e-bikes.

Permanent magnet AC motors were first designed in the 19th century, but there was no inexpensive, practical way to create the AC waveforms necessary for variable speed drive until high-power transistors became available toward the end of the 20th century, and fell rapidly in cost even as their power capabilities were rapidly improving. And the motors themselves grew rapidly in capability as very powerful rare-earth magnets, driven in part by demand from the personal computer hard-drive industry, became readily available and affordable.

William Clay Ford, Jr., left, and Ford President and CEO Jacques Nasser with Ford TH!NK Bike at the 2000 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan.
Ford Chairman William Clay Ford, Jr., left, and Ford President and CEO Jacques Nasser enjoy a moment with the new Ford TH!NK Bike at the 2000 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan January 10, 1999. The electric bike combines the excercise and mobility offered by a standard bicycle with the option of power assisted commuting at the flick of a switch.Owen Humphreys - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Images

Take another machine that benefited from these three revolutions: the 2001 Segway PT balancing scooter; when it was introduced, it was priced at almost $5,000. The Ninebot company that acquired Segway currently sells balancing scooters with similar performance for $800. It wasn’t that long ago that high-performance eBikes cost $5,000 and up. You can find examples with similar performance now for half that, and the more expensive ones are more capable than they were a few years ago.

So the technical revolutions are taking bicycling back to where it was in the 1890s—the fastest and most efficient means possible to navigate urban environments. That’s the reason the fastest growing electric vehicle category has two wheels and pedals!