Alex Beyman
Nov 2, 2018 · 3 min read
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Long time followers who watched as I assembled my own electric bicycle bit by bit may have wondered along the way: Exactly how recent an invention is the electric bicycle? After all, electric cars were in wide use during the early 1900s. Surely someone though to put an electric motor on a bicycle prior to that?

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Indeed so. The earliest record of electric bicycle prototypes date back to 1895. A flurry of related patents followed for every type of propulsive arrangement used on modern ebikes: Hub motors, mid drive motors, belt drives and so on between 1895 and 1899 (the date that the bicycle in the picture up top was demonstrated).

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From a certain standpoint, it’s amusing how little has changed. The bike above ran on a 48 volt battery bank, as most ebikes do today. It had a one horsepower motor (750 watts) which is today the legal limit for ebike motors in much of the United States.

Mind you, the “safety bicycle” only hit the scene in 1880. Safety bicycles are the modern type of bicycle with two equally sized wheels. Prior to that, the standard bicycle had one enormous front wheel and a tiny rear wheel, with no chain, aka a Penny Farthing:

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To go from penny farthings to the first electric bicycles in fifteen years’ time is somewhat staggering, if you ask me. It just goes to show how explosively quick technological progress can leap forward once all of the necessary innovations necessary for it are in place.

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Development continued, though electric bicycles remained a luxury item due to the high cost of the batteries and other components. The bicycle above was sold during the 1930s by Philips, still using the time tested lead acid batteries with little improvement since 1895.

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What an experience that would have been, to own such a forward-thinking machine so early in history. You’d have been like a man from the future, scooting through antiquated streets past all manner of old timey shops and cafes on your dandy electric velocipede. No doubt the ends of your handlebar mustache would be flapping merrily in the breeze.

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It really is a beautifully simple machine which has been with us for ~120 years, only recently exploding into widespread use (in particular in Asian markets) due to the falling cost of electronic components and batteries. I wonder what Hosea W. Libbey, who filed the first electric bicycle patent in the US (patent no. 596,272) would think of that.


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Alex Beyman

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