While most of us are just becoming aware of the electric bike phenomenon, the idea has been around for quite a while. Did you realize that the electric bike idea goes back to the late nineteenth century? It's true! Between 1895 and 1899 four separate patents were submitted for three distinctly unique designs of electric bicycle. Amazing, no?
In 1895, Ogden Bolton Jr. submitted a patent for a bike with an electric motor mounted on the hub of the rear wheel where it could draw power from a ten-volt battery located beneath the seat. The design and description contained in Bolton's patent application 552,271 look quite similar to that of a modern motorcycle.
(Ogden Bolton Jr. Battery powered Bike (U.S. Patent 552271), 1895)
In 1897, Hosea Libbey submitted his patent for a "double electric motor" driven bicycle, which began to look even more like the motorcycles of today, a proto motorcycle. Libbey's patent number 596,272 looked cumbersome, but the basic design was re-developed in the 1990s.
(Hosea W. Libbey Electric Bicycle (U.S. Patent 596272), 1897)
In 1898, Matthew J. Steffen submitted his application request for a rear wheel friction drive attachment that could be fit on most standard bikes of the time. Patent number 613,732 used a belt to drive the rear wheel.
(Matthew J. Steffen rear wheel friction drive attachment (U.S. Patent 613732), 1898)
In 1899, I.J. Schnepf submitted his application request for a rear wheel friction drive attachment that could convert virtually any standard bike into an electric bike. Similar in principle to the Steffen unit, Patent number 627,066 would look familiar on any bike today because modern conversion kits are still popular and come in gas and electric options.
(I.J. Schnepf (U.S. Patent 627066), 1899)
Early E-Bike Design Ideas and Technology.
Of course, the nineteenth-century designs were constrained somewhat by the manufacturing processes of the time, but the concepts that came out of this period still influence e-bike design today. Furthermore, because of that, it can be safely said that these ideas were ahead of their time.
Consider the technology of the period. The industry was still working with one-hundred-year-old designs, processes, and materials. The technology of the time meant that the bikes were heavy, and the batteries were likely to be more substantial. Just think that some of the concepts involved using a 10-volt battery to power the unit and now think of the standard 12-volt car battery; those are lead-acid cells and they are heavy. Generally, that's what they were working with. Add to that that the batteries themselves were subject to efficiency problems when it came to freezing weather, or rainwater causing short circuits or running out of juice altogether.
What is more, now consider the metallurgical processes of the day. Sure, they did have alloys at the time but nothing like what is in use today; which meant that the bicycles of the time were weighty and generic copies of one another with limited room for more advanced development. This substantial weight meant that any tinkering toward developing a self-propelled bicycle was a laborious and highly creative affair. Not that is all bad.
However, the long and short of this early history is that when the bikes worked as designed, which wasn't very often, they didn't work that well. There was no real compelling reason to use one. After all, who wants to pay good money for a product that continually needs troubleshooting and repair work? Moreover, this was to be the case, with a few on and off breakthroughs, for nearly the next century.
The E-Bike Renaissance: Early, Mid, Now.
However, the long and short of this early history is that when the bikes worked as designed, which wasn't very often, they didn't work that well. There was no real compelling reason to use one. After all, who wants to pay good money for a product that continually needs troubleshooting and repair work? No one, as it turned out. Nevertheless, that didn't stop considerable research into the concept.
In fact, over the past one hundred years die hard inventors, and companies everywhere were frantically looking for the secret principle of the electric bike. However, it took nearly that entire period before the e-bike, as we know it today, would come into being. No, before the mid-1990s, developers and manufacturers were stuck using the old stuff, the heavy batteries at the like. Oh sure, there was the odd development here and there that kept the dream alive, but overall, they were a novelty at best and a work in progress always.
In 1920 a German car company by the name Heinzmann started selling small electric motors for bikes. Of course, these were the friction drive types that were not complex to build, install, or operate. An interesting fact is that Heinzmann produces electric motors to this day. Another interesting fact is that the young Howard Hughes was at the time also trying to find the right recipe. Nevertheless, the electric bicycle was to remain in the backwaters of engineering for one fundamental reason. Can you guess what that is?
Well, we have already touched on it. Battery technology was stuck in what might as well have been the dark ages. To get the boost that was desired by e-bike enthusiasts, the battery weight would be prohibitive. Now that you have a power pack with enough energy to move your bike forward, the bike is too heavy to be moved forward – efficiently, that is. Besides, this is why the motorcycle industry took off like it did, after all, why fiddle with expensive heavy batteries and all that engineering that leads nowhere when you can continually modify a gas-powered motorcycle?
(An early electric bike from the 1930s on display at NEMO in Amsterdam)
Then the standard paradigm of hydrocarbons forever all came crashing down in 1973. In 1973, OPEC, the Oil Producing and Exporting Countries, put an embargo on the United States so that they could get more money for their product. OPEC’s embargo had the effect of immediately galvanizing alternative energy advocates everywhere.
As a consequence, their primary question was: "How am I going to get the same energy efficiency from a battery that I do from gasoline?" Well, that probably wasn't the only question, but it was the one that has been driving the energy technology industry ever since. From designing more energy efficient circuits to more effective and longer-lived batteries – that had to be rechargeable, by the way – to developing ever stronger and lighter materials for vehicles that would reduce their weight and thus would require less energy to propel them. So, when was the 1973 wake-up call answered?
Starting roughly twenty years after the fact, batteries, especially the high-efficiency rechargeable kind, were finally hitting the market. Besides, what's more, they benefitted from the ongoing miniaturization of all things electro-mechanical. So, that allowed people to get creative in ways that they hadn't been able to before.
The Batteries Have Arrived.
However, it wasn't just the batteries than improved, for years all kinds of technologies were incrementally improving side-by-side until they hit what may be considered a critical mass, at least for those odd-balls dedicated to electric bikes!
In addition to the battery's composites and alloys of all kinds had been developed for all sorts of uses, and they had the properties that would make them ideal structural components for bikes. Ultra-light, ultra-strong alloys using titanium and advanced carbon fiber manufacturing processes, developed in the aerospace industry, all came together in a streamlined form.
Entirely new systems of design and development emerged from ultra-precise gear cutting to replacing drive chains with more efficient miniaturized drive shafts. Plus all this was precision work that was now available on a mass market scale.
Hence then, the batteries. These new power sources had been in development for a long time and, as anyone in research and development knows, a long time can be an understatement. However, these units weren't merely an incremental improvement on what came before; these batteries were game-changers, and not just for bikes but everything from satellites to flashlights to cars and computers.
These new batteries were lithium-ion power cells that could be recharged many cycles over without losing their punch. Remember the old, massive 10-volt lead-acid battery from the first days of electric bikes? Consider that the new battery technology puts 48 volts on a motorbike and weighs a fraction of what the old battery did. Moreover, that's just now; this technology keeps on improving.
The Performance and Characteristics of Modern Electric Bicycles.
The e-Bikes of today look remarkably like ordinary bicycles. However, that depends on what a regular bike looks like to you. The modern e-bikes can look as sleek as road bikes or as big and beefy as heavy-duty mountain bikes. Also, their performance is unimpeded.
The engineering and power packs that go into the new electric bicycles make for some of the smoothest and most efficient biking around. Not only are these units light and maneuverable, but they can carry an average person up to fifty miles at twenty miles-per-hour on a single charge. Terrain and weather are not obstacles as these new units are designed to be as durable and sturdy as they come.
All modern units have pedal assist so you can put your effort into driving uphill or just along the straights. City streets or mountain parks, these units allow a full field of enjoyment as you survey the environment.
Electric Bicycles Are for Transportation and Fun.
Just because you are riding an electric bike doesn't mean you are missing out on the benefits of traditional human powered bikes. E-Bikes all have a manual option so that you can get the exercise you need when you want it. However, more than this, e-bikes are a great social outlet and allow for people of all physical fitness levels to enjoy outings together.
Commuting becomes much more practical with an e-bike when you consider that a unit can go more than fifty miles on a single charge. Being able to ditch the car and ride into work means you get fresh air, some exercise, you avoid traffic irritations, save gas, and help the environment all at the same time. Plus, you will be able to recharge at work, if need be. For those who have pedaled their way to work in the heat of a summer morning, the e-bike route may even mean that a shower will not be needed once you get to your destination.
Types of Electric Bikes
You have quite a few electric bikes that you can choose from, such as:
- Electric Fat Bikes
- Electric Mountain Bike
- Electric City Bike
- Electric Road Bikes
E-Bikes Are Here to Stay.
So, we have seen that many resolute people and professions have worked diligently, whether they knew it or not, to bring the electric bike out of the shadows and into the mainstream. Moreover, that's not a bad feat when you consider that we started with primarily raw steel tubing and heavy lead-acid batteries.
From the days where the only reference points were anchored in nineteenth-century production and technology knowledge, and the innovations were incremental and derivative at best, to the science-driven discoveries and manufacturing techniques of the twentieth century, bicycle technology has progressed. What used to be a fun novelty has grown into a truly viable method of transportation, and exercise platform and social activity all in one.
It's incredible what persistence, coupled with an energy panic, can do to drive human inventiveness.