Evolution of the Wheelchair

My husband and I have many conversations about a variety of topics. The most recent? Where did the wheelchair come from? So, after a number of Google searches and a lot of reading, here is a brief history of the wheelchair.

No one knows the inventor of the earliest recorded wheelchair, but the first dedicated wheelchair (called an invalid chair) was made for Phillip the 2nd of Spain in 1595.

A paraplegic watchmaker by the name of Stephan Farfler built a self-propelling chair on a three-wheel chassis in 1655. It was called a Manumotive carriage and looked more like a soapbox racer than a wheelchair. It had hand cranks that Stephan used to propel himself around.

In Bath England around 1783, a man named John Dawson invented his own style of wheelchair. He named it after the city where it was invented. The Bath chair’s design was two large wheels and one small one. Again, this chair was different in design than what we are used today. The Bath chair resembled a rickshaw except instead of a person pulling it, there is a smaller wheel attached to a guiding mechanism. Whoever was using the chair piloted it so to speak, but it still took someone else to supply the locomotion by pushing the chair from behind. At the time, the Bath chair was made available to the public and it outsold all other wheelchairs up to the early part of the 19th century.

Although hugely popular, the Bath chair was quite uncomfortable. This led to many improvements to all designs of wheelchairs during the last half of the 19th century. In 1869, a patent for a wheelchair was submitted, showing something closer to what we see today. This iteration of the wheelchair was the first to feature large rear wheels and smaller front casters. Between 1867 and 1875, several different inventors added new hollow rubber wheels, similar to rubber used on metal rims on bicycles. Then in 1881, someone came up with push rims for added self propulsion! A lot was going on in the 1800s in the field of wheelchair innovation.

By 1900, spokes were added to the wheels, and then by 1916, the first motorized wheelchair was manufactured in London by the Harding Company. This chair ran on a 1.75 horsepower motor attached to what was called an “invalid’s tricycle chassis.” Although this chair was motorized, it is not recorded as the first electric wheelchair. The founders of Everest & Jennings invented the folding wheelchair in 1932. Later, they would become the first company to mass produce the electric wheelchair in 1956.

The first electric powered wheelchair recorded was developed in 1953. Canadian inventor George Klien and his team invented what would be later called the Klien Power Chair. The idea for the chair came about from a program Mr. Klien participated in at the National Research Council of Canada, which assisted injured veterans returning after World War II.

USB charger on the Edge 3

Since then many, many variations with countless improvements have come about to make the marvelous machines we have today. Without my iLevel® Power Chair by Quantum®, with its many features, life for me would be a bit more troublesome and uncomfortable. With the added lift capabilities my iLevel offers, I literally able to reach new heights in independence. Small features sometimes mean a great deal in the long run, like my USB charger. This allows me to never have to worry about the dreaded “almost dead cell phone battery” situation so many of us find ourselves in.

The almost endless back, seat and footrest adjustments that I can make in my wheelchair ensures that I’m comfortable for a few hours or on all-day excursions. 

In my research, I was amazed to actually learn about the future of power chairs: mind control! A super smart man by the name of Brian Donoghue and a company called Braingate have invented new wheelchair technology made especially for a patient with extremely limited mobility.     

The ideal patient would have great difficulties operating any kind of wheelchair on their own. The Braingate device is implanted into the patient’s brain and hooked to a computer, to which the patient can send mental commands that result in any machine, including the power chair, doing what the patient wants it to do. This new technology is called BCI or brain-computer interface. Talk about mind-over-matter technology.

Who knows? Maybe in ten or fifteen years, the next person to do a history of the wheelchair blog will be adding the hover chair to the interesting history of mobility for the disabled.

About Merlisha Henderson: Merlisha lives in Arizona with her family. As a wife, mother and disability advocate in her community, she stays active and independent, working toward bringing equality and access to all. Click here to learn more about Merlisha.