Regardless of whether you call it an “e-bike”, “ebike”, or the passe “electric bicycle”, ebikes are quite trendy. In China alone, where 2-wheeled transportation has always been the alternative transportation of choice, there are over 200 million ebikes registered in the country, with 30 million more added annually. Being energy efficient, costing less to use and maintain than other forms of personal transportation, and allowing exercise while potentially reducing fatigue (especially for long distances or rough terrain), it’s easy to understand why they have been increasingly popular over the last couple of decades. Much like its newfound popularity, the term is also relatively new; however, the concept is older than you may think.
The term ebike is, as we all know, the shortened form of “electric bicycle”. Examining the basic terminology, bicycle originates from the Latin/Greek mishmash of bi-, which is the Latin prefix meaning ‘two’, and the Greek kyklos, meaning ‘circular or wheeled’; moreover, the adjective electric, it comes from the Modern Latin electricus, literally meaning ‘resembling amber’.
Narrowing that initial terminology down, the first use of “bike” to represent “bicycle” can be found in an 1880 edition of Cyclist & Bicycling & Tricycling Trades Review, where it is written that: “We can conscientiously recommend it as an excellent shillingsworth of ‘bike’ and ‘trike’ literature.” As for e representing a shortening of electric, this can be traced back to the November 22, 1969 edition of the Chicago Daily Defender (newspaper), which wrote that: “Ford Motor Company’s electric car… The E-Car was designed as a test bed.”
Though the term has been used since the 1990s, with one of the first ebike modern ebike makers, Vector Services Limited, marketing the “Zike” model in 1992, one of the first widespread usages of the term can be found in a 2004 OECD publication entitled Can Cars come Clean?, discussing how “51 e-scooters, 30 e-bikes, three light electric vehicles and 15 e-cars (in a total 99 electric vehicles) have been funded.”
Given, looking at the sales figures, nobody can doubt the modern popularity of ebikes or their useful urban application, but the concept is nothing new. With pedal bicycles being invented sometime in the mid-1800s (depending on which claim you choose to believe), the first “ebikes” were invented in the 90s, meaning the 1890s. From 1895 to 1899, there were several different patents issued by the U.S. Patent Office for bikes that were battery powered (Ogden Bolton), powered by a double electric motor (Hosea W. Libbey), or powered by an electric motor and roller wheel (John Schnepf).
Since then, ebikes have also been equipped with torque sensors, power controls, and increasingly stronger, better, and smaller motors, so much so that they can now reach approximately 25 mph (40 kph). Ironically, what is making them better and faster, is also making them less safe for users as well as pedestrians, which is why some Chinese cities – where they are/were widely used – are restricting their usage. However, even the problems aren’t new: Scottish blacksmith Kirkpatrick MacMillan, who claimed to have invented the first mechanically-propelled bicycle in 1839, was also one of the first to get a traffic offence as well as a 5 shilling fine in 1842.