BOSTON—The first thing I noticed in Harvard Square this week was how many bicyclists there are, and the second thing was the GeoOrbital electric bike. It’s not often that a new invention stops you cold, but c’mon, these Cambridge guys have reinvented the wheel. Here's how GeoOrbital describes it:

Imagine a wheel that has a motor and a battery — a wheel that replaces your bike’s front wheel and makes your bike electric — a wheel that gets you up hills, around the park and to work without sweating. It’s the future and the early adopter price is $450.
I have two electric bikes, and they’re great fun. Beyond that, they’re a credible commuting option, especially if your journey involves hills (or you’re not as young as you used to be).

You definitely do a double take at GeoOrbital’s technology, because the wheel doesn’t actually turn — that’s the job of the tire, which rotates via three center-mounted hubs. A non-spinning wheel frees up a lot of space to mount the motor and battery, as well as some inevitable accessories — a cellphone charger, headlights, a speaker.

Michael Burtov with his evolving (and revolving) creation, GeoOrbital wheel

Michael Burtov with his evolving (and revolving) creation. (Photo: GeoOrbital)

Early versions weighed 35 pounds, but Dakota Decker, the company’s chief technology officer (and a former SpaceX guy) thinks that can be reduced to 20 or 25 pounds. Weight is the enemy in electric bikes, which can be heavy if pedaled without electric assist.

Michael Burtov, the non-engineer who co-founded GeoOrbital, said he got the idea from the motorcycles in the movie "Tron." But those fictional creations don’t make creative use of the empty inner wheel space. Burtov built a crude prototype, then brought some real designers on board. The company is still in its early stages — just three test examples have been built — but they're already taking pre-orders. After a few hundred pre-production wheels are sold, the first mass-market versions will be on the market in six months, Burtov said.

The inspiration: The motorcycles in the film Tron.

The inspiration: The motorcycle in the film "Tron." (Photo: Disney)

The beauty of the design is that the front-mounted wheel can be quickly mounted to any bike, and just as quickly removed and the pedaling bike restored. The cruising range, with a 350-watt electric motor and 10 amp-hour lithium-ion battery, is about 20 miles, though that extends to 50 miles with pedal assist (and optional extra battery packs will be available). The weight is on the front wheel, but Burtov denies that makes the bike front-heavy. "The weight doesn't spin," he said. "It's more like a saddlebag; it makes the bike more balanced."

GeoOrbital claims it takes only five minutes to install its wheel. The targeted bikes are “700c hybrid and 29er mountain bicycles found in specialty and big box stores.” Future versions will be aimed at 26-inch bikes, then other sizes. Burtov told me, "Our market is people who'd like to commute by bike, but don't want to sweat getting to work. It's all the people who would bike if it were easier and more practical." Is he a big biker? "I wasn't healthy enough to bike," he said. "I'm an avid biker now."

Frances Sbarro's original orbital wheel design from 1989.

Frances Sbarro's original orbital wheel design from 1989. (Photo: Peter Vann)

Other companies have explored orbital wheel designs, so Burtov can’t totally claim to have reinvented the wheel. An Italian named Frances Sbarro came up with the concept, and applied it to three separate motorcycle designs by 1989. Unfortunately, he then sold the rights and development stopped. But Parker Brothers Concepts of Melbourne, Florida not only offers the Vacio Hubless Wheel Kit for motorcycles, it will also build you a complete honkin’ Tron bike (starting at $55,000).

This Tron cycle actually rides and drives.

And the Big O, a Ferris wheel in Tokyo, made the 2006 Guinness listings for the largest functioning centerless wheel.

The Big O ferris wheel in Japan is the largest orbital wheel in the world.

The Big O Ferris wheel in Japan is the largest orbital wheel in the world. (Photo: Stefan/flickr)

GeoOrbital deserves a lot of credit, though, for imagining not only that its wheel design could house a fully operational electric bicycle system, but that it could offer quick changes from conventional to electric. Here's the bike on the Discovery Channel:

Jim Motavalli ( @jmotavalli ) writes about cars, technology and the environmental world to anyone curious enough to ask.

Reinventing the wheel, 'Tron'-style
On GeoOrbital's new design, only the tire turns, freeing up space to create a self-contained electric bike conversion.