Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


On the origin of the e-bike

Huub Ehlhardt, Arthur O. Eger

The bicycle is back in the spotlight again. Although now it is the electric version that is attracting the attention. After a very long incubation period it is now clear the e-bike is here to stay. Nevertheless, it appears that the evolution of the e-bike is still in progress. There are many variations in types and legal classifications that lead to confusion among consumers.

This article is the third of a series of five on product evolution. They illustrate that technological evolution can explain ‘the origin of products’, although one of a different nature than we know from biological species.

evolution of the e-bike


The oldest known serious candidate forerunner for the bicycle is the ‘running machine’ built by the German Baron Karl von Drais. His two-wheeled machine became known as the Draisienne and was first shown to the public in 1817. Two decades later a Scottish blacksmith by the name of Kirkpatrick MacMillan allegedly made a first mechanically propelled bicycle. In 1842 a Glasgow newspaper reported “a gentleman from Dumfries-shire bestride a velocipede of ingenious design” knocked over a little girl and was fined five shillings. This probably first bicycle traffic incident and many associate it with MacMillan.

Early days of the bicycle

The first bicycle designs were made mainly out of wood. Then, in 1866 the Frenchman Michaud made a first completely steel frame bicycle. This was made possible by advances in manufacturing technologies provided by the industrial revolution that also influenced many other new products like the typewriter discussed in the previous article.

The second half of the 19th century witnessed the advent of many bi- and tricycle designs both with direct and indirect transmission. Michaud’s velocipede was a first with a direct drive to the front wheel. Riding this apparatus was not comfortable at all and required lots of skill and force. This phenomenon was even more strongly apparent in the ‘Ariel’, a bicycle introduced in 1871 by James Starley that also became known as the ‘High Bi’, ‘Ordinary’ or the ‘Penny-Farthing’. Riding this bicycle was only for the higher middle class and upper class young men who used it to show off their athletic skills. Riding it was not without danger as the 125 cm diameter direct driven front wheel with solid rubber tires gave it a very high center of gravity. Toppling over was as serious risk. As these high bicycles were used for sports competitions, the front wheel evolved to larger versions allowing it to cycle even faster. For the women or elderly of that time, riding this extreme machine was clearly no option.

Experiments with the many bi- and tricycle designs eventually gave rise to the first modern bicycle that was introduced in 1885 by John Starley (related to the above namesake) and named the ‘Rover Safety Bicycle’. This new machine featured a chain driven rear wheel, diamond shaped frame, and inflated rubber tires. Pneumatic tires provided bicycles with much sought after comfort. Also it appeared that the new bicycle design with pneumatic tires allowed for faster cycling than was practically possible with the bouncy High Bi. Besides, it proved to be less difficult to ride and that implied it was not reserved to young and athletic men anymore. Consequently, the iconic high-wheeled bicycle lost its appeal and disappeared from the scene. Soon even women and the elderly started to cycle. And so selection by the market favoured the Rover Safety Bicycle. All subsequent bicycles would retain its main design features and as a result it became the ‘mother-of-all-bicycles’.

Read the full post here.

About The Authors

Huub Ehlhardt

Huub Ehlhardt has studied Industrial Design Engineering at Technische Universiteit Delft and worked on a Ph.D. project at Universiteit Twente. He has worked over twenty years in di...

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Arthur O. Eger

Arthur. O. Eger is a Professor of Product Design. He has a broad experience in industrial design engineering, wrote and edited over fifteen books, and published over 100 articles a...

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