Today, it might seem like electric scooters were inevitable, and their lightning-fast takeover of the entire world was always meant to happen.
But as with any story, the devil is in the details, and the true story behind the scenes is a bit different.
Electric scooters are much more than just the latest nifty idea made popular by a few Silicon Valley startups in the last decade.
The entire story spans back more than two centuries, and like any great story, it’s full of ups and downs, twists and turns, mystery and knowledge, trial and error, passion and betrayal…
Ok, maybe not so much the last one (although there is a bit of that going on as well).
But it’s still an exciting story of the triumph of progress and innovation, and how much work and effort it takes to materialize those, and why we shouldn’t take that for granted. And, also, by looking at the entire struggle to make scooters a reality and an accessible commodity for the regular person, we will realize that we might have been stuck in a strange vicious cycle, and that we might finally be ready to break from it.
Electric scooter history
This is a complete timeline of the electric scooter. Let’s dive in.
Before the electric scooter – 1817
The beginnings of the very concept of a vehicle for personal transportation trace back more than 200 years.
We can’t begin the story of the scooter without paying homage to its great-grandfather – the velocipede.
The first velocipede was invented by German inventor Karl Freiherr von Drais in 1817 (btw, the same guy that invented the earliest typewriter with a keyboard). Drais was motivated by the desire to come up with a mode of transport that doesn’t rely on a horse.
Initially, the invention was called Laufmaschine (“running machine” in German), or “dandy horse“. The first version didn’t even have pedals, and riders had to ride with their feet, the same way Fred Flintstone rides the Flintmobile. Later, several other versions appeared, with two, three, four, and even five wheels, but the velocipede with the two wheels became the most popular one.
The first bike ride in 1817 lasted for one hour and covered 4.3 mi / 7 km, in the Mannheim area.
The idea for the velocipede began to spread. Manufacturers in France and England began to produce and sell several different versions of the dandy horse, and their popularity started to increase.
Unfortunately, roads back then were so inhospitable for a contraption like the Laufmaschine, that riders started using the pavements and other areas meant for pedestrians, which then resulted in a few collisions, and the German authorities, and authorities around the world for that matter, banned the use of the new mode of transport (sounds familiar?).
Anyway, that’s the birth of the idea of a two-wheeled vehicle for personal use, which is still the same principle behind the bicycle, the motorcycle, and, of course, the scooter. Thank you for your service, Karl Drais, the scooter world will forever be in your debt and honor you with the title of great-grandfather.
The first pedal-driven bicycles – 1857
It would take a few decades for the restrictions to loosen up and for the idea of a personal two-wheeled vehicle to capture the imaginations of inventors and the general public once again. Luckily, the idea came back with a vengeance, and this time, in the form of the pedal-propelled bicycle.
Yes, we’re now talking about those strange bikes with two wheels of different sizes that you only ever see in a black-and-white picture, with a top-hat-wearing gentleman with a very masculine mustache riding one, and raising his hit to salute a lady in a huge dress, who is also riding a bicycle with two wheels of different sizes.
And yes, it does look quite ridiculous to us now, with our smartphones and 3-D printers and clever sarcasm, thinking we’re so smart and cool and cynical… but we have to understand that the velocipede was nothing short of a revolution in its time, and it’s probably the starting point of the electric scooter revolution that’s raging on today! I mean, back in that time, people still rode horses! Horses!
The first company to mass-produce the early pedal-driven velocipedes was the Michaux company, founded by Pierre Michaux, Pierre Lallement, and the Olivier brothers. Velocipedes became so popular, that even academies that educated people on how to ride them appeared, and also indoor locations that provided smooth surfaces specially designed for riding them (the roads were a bit better at that point, but still mostly cobblestone, which is a pain in the buttocks for riding a bike over it, literally).
Velocipedes were mostly made from wood initially, but advances in metallurgy led to an increased usage of metal in the construction of velociped, and later even the first all-metal velociped.
As manufacturers realized that larger wheels increased the comfort and the stability of the ride, the wheels started to grow in size, with the final iterations being called the high-wheeler or the “penny-farthing” in England.
This was also the first device to be officially known as a bicycle.
The high-wheeler had its fifteen minutes of fame, but while it provided a better ride comfort, the size of the front wheel started getting absurdly high, with the balance of the rider getting shakier and shakier, and injuries being more common and more serious.
Luckily, the next innovation in the revolution introduced a new gamechanger that eliminated the need for the gigantic wheels, and introduced a device that looks similar to something we all know and love today.
The chain drive – 1886
In 1886, Rowley Turner brought a bicycle back in Coventry, England, and the device fascinated his uncle, Josiah Turner, and his business partner, James Starley, to a degree that they decided they should not only get involved in producing it, but they also had a few interesting ideas on how to make it a lot better.
They immediately realized that the big wheel was a major problem, and that the weight distribution of the bicycle was both unnatural for the rider and very unsafe. They reduced the wheel diameter, and moved the seat a bit more towards the rear. John Kemp Starley (James Starley’s nephew) also added his unique and probably most valuable contribution with the idea of introducing a chain between the pedals and the rear wheel, and the whole device finally made a lot more sense, in terms of design, engineering, and economy of movement for the rider.
The “Coventry model” was born. This is the first bicycle model that’s conceptually pretty much the same as the modern bike of today. In fact, with so many enthusiasts going retro (or worst, steampunk), it wouldn’t be surprising if you see a bike on the streets that resembles the early prototypes of the Coventry model.
The pneumatic tire – 1887
In 1887, Scottish inventor John Boyd Dunlop had a simple goal in mind – to make his son’s tricycle safer, more comfortable, and more fun (his son was actually prescribed frequent tricycle rides as an exercise by his doctor).
He had some knowledge and experience in working with rubber, so he figured that if he fitted an inflated tube of rubber sheet over the wooden wheels, his son could have both a more stable and a safer ride.
The pneumatic tire was born. Or rather, reborn, as the first pneumatic tire was actually invented by another Scotsman, Robert William Thomson, but it never gained any, um, traction, let’s say, and never went into production.
He and his partners worked a lot on improving and commercializing the technology, through his company called Pneumatic Tyre, later renamed Dunlop Rubber, and then again renamed Dunlop Tyres. They made several other critical contributions to pneumatic tire technology, including sulfur vulcanization, but patent issues about the invention were always present and his business always faced difficulties because of that. Dunlop claimed he didn’t know about the previous invention of the pneumatic tire before he reinvented it.
Still, despite Dunlop’s hardships in building an ultra-successful business based on his product, the technology kept improving, and bicycle riders around the world were the true winners. There were several bike crazes before, and a few more after that, and people just seemed to be fascinated by bikes.
And yet, there was still some room for an improvement…
The first battery-powered bicycle – 1895
On December 31, 1895, Ogden Bolton Jr. was granted a patent (US552271A) for the first-ever battery-powered bicycle, for a 6-pole brush-and-commutator direct current (DC) hub motor integrated into the rear wheel, with no gears and no chains. Some of those terms may already start to sound familiar to some scooter enthusiasts and experts.
Two years later, Hosea W. Libbey went a step further and actually invented the first electric bicycle (patent US596272), and included a double electric model. While it never gained any mass adoption, a lot of its design was borrowed almost 100 years later by Giant Lafree.
There were several other patents and reinventions of the electric bike around that time, but none of them saw any serious implementation and widespread use. For some reason, that still seems to be mysteriously present even today, people seem to prefer regular bikes over electric ones.
However, another personal two-wheel transport device was beginning to take shape…
The kick scooter mystery
The story of the electric scooter has one critical piece missing. It’s quite counter-intuitive if we think about it.
Here’s the problem – we know that the first motorized scooters appear in historic documents as early as 1915, and possibly even earlier.
But the frame for that device, the basics, the actual design of a stem and a deck with some wheels under it, you know, just a regular scooter, which is a much simpler contraption than a motorized scooter… there’s almost no mention of it.
Am I the only one who finds this weird?
Don’t you think that there must have been at least some concept of a plain vanilla kick scooter before there was a motorized scooter? Isn’t it highly unlikely that the motorized scooter came before the regular kick scooter?
Anyway, we can’t pinpoint the date of invention for the regular kick scooter. Research through historic sources yields almost no results.
We will move on to the motorized scooter now. The regular kick scooter remains a mystery for now.
The first motorized scooter – 1915
The Autoped was called a “self-propelled vehicle”, and was the first motorized scooter, produced in Long Island, New York. The first unit was produced in 1915, and the last one in 1922.
You can imagine the attention that the early scooterists got from the public back in those days. They even got a ton of attention a few years ago when they made a comeback on the scene, and we can only imagine what it must have been like to ride along the streets of New York, during the roaring 20s, with all those skyscrapers being constructed, and progress being noticeable on every corner.
The mechanism of the Autoped was quite sophisticated, especially for that day and age. It ran on gasoline, the engine was air-cooled, and the stem was foldable for easier storage. The driver accelerated by pressing a lever on the handlebar, and the scooter even had a clutch mechanism that was engaged by pushing the handlebars forward, while pulling the handlebars engaged the brakes. The scooter even had a headlamp and a tail lamp.
Obviously, such a device must have been an incredible luxury that only the wealthiest could afford. While it garnered a lot of attention in the public, the biggest companies that produced motorized scooters didn’t stay in business for too long, and scooters started to fade away from the public eye a bit.
Cushman Auto-Glide – 1936
The Cushman company attempted to reintroduce the motorized scooter around the year 1936. The company was already experienced in producing the motors, and apparently had a few spare engines that were just gathering dust in their warehouses, so there was an opportunity to possibly reinvigorate the scooter craze once again, by introducing the Cushman Auto-Glide.
However, trouble with the authorities was, once again, the deciding factor, and ultimately what silenced the reintroduction of the scooter. After a few years of rising popularity, the lack of regulation, or the unwillingness of the authorities to deal with the matter, stood in the way of progress yet again, and the Cushman company started to find their scooter venture financially unviable.
Back to bikes – 1965
For a few decades, it seemed like scooters were gone forever. With the exception of some WW2 scooters, everyone shifted their attention back to bicycles.
There was another bike boom in the US raging from 1965 to around 1975, in what was described by Time magazine as “the bicycle’s biggest wave of popularity in its 154-year history“.
Millions of bikes were produced and bought by everyone and their grandma. Most of the bikes sold were actually children’s bikes, but still, bike sales surpassed car sales in the early 70s, which is just unbelievable for a country like the US.
However, in another case of history repeating itself, this bike craze also started to lose steam, and after a decade of enthusiasm, the enthusiasm started to deflate.
Still, while the bike craze ended, bikes, in general, were here to stay this time, and they never went away. Their popularity and usage continues to rise and fall even to this day, but they have been a reality and a positive environmental factor throughout the entire world ever since.
Hybrid electric motorcycle – 1967
One of the first hybrid electric motorcycles, that used both fuel cells and nickel-cadmium batteries, was developed by Austrian chemist and inventor Karl Kordesch in 1967, during his time working for Union Carbide.
Papoose – 1967
In 1967, under the supervision of Floyd Cramer, a prototype for an electric motorcycle called Papoose was released by the Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing company. This is probably the first time an electric motorcycle that resembles modern electric motorcycles has been released.
Motorcycles and mopeds have been gradually growing in popularity since the WW2 era, and in many parts of the world, they have become the predominant mode of transport. Countries in the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia practically run on motorcycles today, and mopeds and Vespas are still huge in Italy and some other parts of Europe.
Somewhere along the line, the word “scooter” started to mean two different things. It can mean a vehicle resembling a small motorcycle, or it can mean a kick scooter of any sort, motorized or not…
Maybe small motorcycles and mopeds were called “scooters” first, or at least called so more often. It’s probably the case that even today, after God-only-knows how many electric kick scooters sold, the word “scooter” will mean a small motorcycle to most people in most parts of the world, except maybe in a few Western countries.
On the other hand, patents like the Autoped date way before these small motorcycles, and clearly came first. Also, the Shorter Oxford Dictionary defines a scooter as: “a child’s toy consisting of a narrow flat piece of wood on low wheels, with a steering-handle, propelled by pushing with one foot on the ground; also, a similar machine propelled by a motor”.
That should settle the debate, but we know it won’t. For most people in the world, “scooter” will simply mean some kind of a small motorcycle.
To make matters worse, even the term “electric scooter” can now mean either an electric kick scooter, or a small electric motorcycle.
Small motorcycles simply usurped the name “scooter”.
The kick scooter reappears – 1974
In 1974, the Japanese car company Honda released the Kick’n Go (translate to English to see the Wikipedia article in English).
The Kick’n Go is probably the first notable appearance of a kick scooter. Essentially, it’s a children’s kick scooter with 3 wheels, that was supposed to “make skateboarding easier”.
The scooter became a popular toy, and that’s probably the main reason why electric scooters were viewed as toys years after they started to make waves in the early 2000s. A series of other similar models started to pop up, and the scooter even started to appear in TV shows and movies of the time.
As it always happens, a single accident caused a massive overreaction, and the scooter was banned. While accidents like this are always tragic and horrifying, it’s somewhat strange that scooters always end up being banned somehow (you don’t see airplanes banned after airplane accidents, or cars banned after car accidents, or bikes banned after bike accidents).
The Kickbike – 1994
A concept similar to a scooter was developed in Helsinki, Finland, in 1994, called the Kickbike.
The name kinda says it all. It’s almost like a hybrid between a kick scooter and a bike, as initially it looks much more like a bike, but it works like a scooter.
Kickbikes were actually invented to train sled dogs in the Swiss Alps during the summer, when there is no snow.
Also, Amish communities prefer kickbikes to regular bicycles because, as it turns out, regular bicycles involve gears and chains and other more complicated technology, and that goes against their way of life.
Peugeot Scoot’Elec, the modern electric scooter (the other kind) – 1994
In 1994, Peugeot released the first mass-produced electric scooter, the Peugeot Scoot’Elec model. We’re talking about a small motorcycle now, not a kick scooter.
Still, the model is important from a historic perspective because it’s the first mass-produced unit that runs on nickel-cadmium batteries, and even though the technology has been mostly superceded by lithium-ion batteries now, it was still an important point in history.
The birth of the modern kick scooter – 1996
We arrive at a point where we can probably say with a fair amount of certainty is the birth point of the modern kick scooter.
Legend has it, the first kick scooter was born out of the need for a… sausage.
One night in 1990, in Zurich, Switzerland, Win Ouboter, a Dutch-Swiss banker and tinkerer, was in a mood for a kind of a sausage known as the bratwurst. He had to get to a place called Sternengrill, which was too close for him to go by car, but too far to go on foot.
Lightbulb moment here!
This is probably the point in time where the idea for what we all know today as the kick scooter was born.
He wanted a mode of transport that was simple to use, light in weight, easy to manage, portable, quick, reliable, safe, and fun.
He wanted the kick scooter.
The problem was, the kick scooter didn’t exist yet.
While he somewhat forgot about the idea in 1990, he revisited it again in 1995, and, the tinkerer that he is, he began obsessing over, and more importantly, working on, his idea of what would the perfect mode of transport look like for that faithful night when he wanted that bratwurst.
He built his first prototypes and launched his company Micro Mobility Systems in 1996. The company partnered with Chinese bike manufacturer JD Corp, the first scooters were produced quickly after that, and sales began in Japan in 1999.
That is the moment where history begins for electric kick scooters.
Nobody saw scooters coming (except possibly Win Ouboter himself, who says he saw the whole thing coming, with Lime and Bird scooters cruising down the streets of San Francisco and everything).
Micro vs Razor beef – 2000
According to Win Ouboter, the problem for his company Micro was that their scooters, while incredibly easy and fun to use, were also incredibly easy to copy and replicate by competitors.
Of course, tons of copycats started emerging out of the woodwork.
To make matters worse for Micro, their manufacturing partners, JD Corp started producing an exact replica of the main model of Micro, called the JD Razor, which was initially only supposed to be sold in Asia and reimburse Micro for each unit sold, but soon started to flood the European markets as well, directly competing against Micro scooters.
Since Chinese companies don’t always play by the same rules as Western companies, JD has been able to outmaneuver Micro and establish itself as the dominant player in the category of scooters for children.
Win Ouboter always thought of kick scooters as much more than just toys for children. While Micro scooters are still available today and are a well-established brand in the scooter world, it’s almost certain that they deserve much more recognition than what they get.
We don’t know what will happen to the scooter industry, and whether Micro scooters will get vindicated and get the much larger market share they probably deserve, but one thing is for sure – Win Ouboter’s vision that scooters will be much more than toys is turning into reality.
The future arrives… on a Segway – 2001
It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment in time where the electric kick scooter revolution, um, kickstarted.
Probably the most significant moment so far must be the release of the first Segway model, back in 2001.
Even though the Segway is not technically an electric kick scooter, it shares a lot of similarities with it, and more importantly, it shares all the crucial ones:
- two wheeled device
- for transporting a single person
- has a deck
- has a stem with handlebars
- runs on electric batteries
- instantly becomes popular
- looks a bit nerdy
So while the Segway wasn’t exactly the first electric kick scooter, it was probably its direct ancestor, and it paved the way in many regards, most importantly proving that there is a huge demand and a market for a battery-powered personal transport vehicle out there.
Plus, the company was acquired by Ninebot in 2015 (with money raised from Xiaomi, curiously enough), and today, the Segway Ninebot scooters is one of the most successful electric scooter lines ever made.
While the Segway did make a lot of splashes and got a lot of attention from the public, it turned out that the product’s design and conception weren’t quite there yet (to be fair, the product was probably way ahead of its time). The Segway was an intriguing concept to many, but it always remained just a fringe semi-toy vehicle that only mall guards and massive nerds ever rode, and it never really became a huge financial success, at least not in the way electric scooters today have become.
As it turns out, all that was required for it to be a major success was to only change the position of the wheels a bit.
The first Razor electric scooter for kids – 2003
Following the major success of the regular kick scooter, and probably taking note of some other developments in personal mobility and battery technology, the Razor scooter brand released their first electric scooter for kids in 2003.
Not only were they selling like hot cakes from the day they hit the market, but Razor electric scooters for kids are selling like crazy even today. It’s even remarkable when you think about it – the company has dominated the children’s scooter market for more than 20 years now! They even imprinted an image of the electric scooter as primarily meant for children in the public’s eye, an image that has been so strong that scooters couldn’t shake it off for years!
While Razor scooters were a smashing hit for children in the early 2000s, nobody was thinking of trying out the same product but for adults yet.
We are getting there – 2013
A decade after the rise and fall of the Segway, and the expansion of the Razor electric scooters, seemingly nobody is seeing the potential of electric scooters for adults yet.
However, several models of lightweight, portable, foldable electric kick scooters, powered by lithium batteries, with BLDC hub motors integrated into one or both of their wheels, start to become available on the market.
They are mostly a novel concept for people, and while initial sales numbers look promising, nobody still has even the slighteset clue of what’s about to happen next.
The big bang of the Xiaomi M365 – 2016
In December 2016, Chinese tech and consumer electronics company Xiaomi releases an electric scooter with a lithium-ion battery, a hub motor in the front wheel, able to reach top speeds of up to 15.5 mph / 25 kmh, and can cover 18.6 mi / 30 km on a single battery charge.
The model is called the Xiaomi M365 (you can check out the full Xiaomi M365 review to find out more about why this scooter was legendary).
The scooter is immediately a big hit, but what follows very soon after its launch propels it into stardom and secures it an eternal place on the wall of fame in the scooter world. While the scooter has some disadvantages, especially the vulnerability to flat tires, it still manages to dominate the electric scooter market quickly, something that almost remains true to this day.
Bird, Lime, and ride-sharing scooters – 2017
On September 1st, 2017, the ride-sharing, micromobility, and transportation company Bird was founded in Santa Monica, California, by Travis VanderZanden, a former executive at Lyft and Uber. The company quickly raises hundreds of millions in investments, becoming the fastest company to reach the coveted “unicorn” status (a valuation of 1 billion dollars). Just a year after starting out, the company records its 10th million ride on one of their scooters.
Shortly after Bird, another ride-sharing and transportation startup, Lime, which is focused on ride-sharing bicycles up to that point, sees the massive opportunity with electric scooters, and in February 2018 announces its own scooter-sharing program as well.
These two startups launch scooter-sharing programs in hundreds of major cities worldwide, and their scooters flood the streets around the world.
People start losing their minds for electric scooters. At first they are curious, and a bit weirded out – those things look kinda strange, and they seem difficult to ride… how are all those people not falling while riding them?
As it turns out, figuring out how to ride one takes 30 seconds.
It’s easy, and it’s unbelievably fun.
Plus, you get where you need to go about 10 times faster than walking.
Plus, you never get stuck in traffic.
Plus, riding them is so cheap, and if you buy one, you practically ride for free after that.
Everybody wants to try one out, and millions of people start.
We witness a whole new craze being born, and it hasn’t stopped growing ever since.
The scooter wars – 2018
Mass insanity starts to develop around electric scooters.
The public starts to fall in love with them. Everyone is either riding one through Lime or Bird, or buying one for their own. Even people that have said they hate scooters at first, find themselves trying one out, and later buying one, and later buying an upgraded one!
Manufacturers of other scooters start to appear. The Xiaomi M365 is one of the most profitable consumer electronics in the last few years, and tons of copycats emerge and try to replicate it, often even without trying to hide the fact that they’ve ripped off everything from the original. Other, braver, more innovative companies, try to launch their own unique scooter lines, offering unique value and tradeoffs to customers, and a lot of them manage to establish themselves as important players on the market. As the competition increases and newer, better models come up, they offer more features and performance, while driving the price down at the same time.
Lime and Bird are fighting an epic battle for every city, with vicious turf wars in the cities where they both operate, and maybe start to see that they might get blind-sighted by established giants in the transportation game like Uber and Lyft, who are also starting to eye the scooter-sharing market, and release programs of their own. Other, smaller ride-sharing companies start to pop up as well, each looking to get a piece of the pie. Investors keep making it rain on all of the startups, and billions get invested into the space.
And, finally, authorities, and some concerned partybreaking citizenry, are losing their minds because of the new electric scooter craze. The ride-sharing startups come in their cities with a bulldozer strategy, they “move fast and break things”, they bring the revolution first and ask questions later, and that annoys a lot of people who aren’t still buying the whole new scooter world.
And they have a point – it’s not clear whose responsibility it is to park the scooters properly after sharing them, and even how should proper parking look like (it’s certainly not throwing the scooter on the sidewalk). Coupled with a few accidents, injuries, and even a few deaths, that’s more than enough for several cities to outright ban all use of electric scooters until they figure out how to properly regulate them, London being the most famous example.
Still, the electric scooter revolution is showing no signs of stopping. The period of huge investments into ride-sharing companies, coupled with lots of vocal and mixed reactions around electric scooters, starts to become known as the “scooter wars“, and there’s no end in sight.
Electric scooters shine in the moments of crisis – 2020
While many things seemed to go from bad to worse, electric scooters were one of the very few products that proved to be useful in the time of crisis, as long as people buy their own instead of using one through the ride-sharing companies.
Even though our movement was limited, people quickly realized that when they do have to move, they needed a mode of transport that is personal, private, hygienic, and not shared with anyone else, so that transmission of diseases was unlikely. Nobody wants to ride in cars with other people anymore, and nobody is even thinking of public transport of any sort.
Bikes made a comeback, but electric scooter made a true splash!
While ride-sharing companies lost revenue because people were reluctant to share anything, sales of personal electric scooters seemed to be going better than ever.
And no wonder. They truly provided us with an easy, convenient, safe way to travel during a trying time, and people fell in love with them even more.
The new world – 2021
After an intense period of growth, investments, innovation, catastrophe, and triumph, things seem to finally start to stabilize.
Electric scooters are part of our lives now.
Ride-sharing companies continue to battle each other for dominance, but as people realize the value of owning a scooter of their own, they are increasingly left to look for their audience in tourists and beginners.
People with a daily commute find that buying a scooter costs as much as riding a shared one for a year, and also they can avoid all the hassles of not actually owning the scooter themselves, so a lot of people decide to make the jump and buy one.
There are more than 300 different models of electric scooters for adults, and hundreds of models for children as well, from several dozens of different companies, ranging from global tech corporations, to not much more than a garage full of tinkering enthusiasts who sell hand-made scooters they carefully work on for weeks.
Scooters can now easily cover serious distances, and people even talk of them as replacements for cars in many scenarios. A lot of the established models get new and upgraded releases, that address a lot of the complaints that owners have had with the previous versions. Defects are getting rarer and rarer, quality levels are rising, and even flat tires are not as common as a few years ago.
With many options to choose for, catering to many different types of owners, it seems like there’s the perfect electric scooter for every person in every scenario. Further, the intense competition drives the price down so much, that several hundred dollars can now go a long way and can buy a pretty decent budget scooter.
It’s the new world, and electric scooters are now a part of it.