A short history of wheelchairs

As a wheelchair user, I started to wonder how my life might have been had I been born 100 years ago, 500 years ago or 1000 years ago and (assuming I actually survived) this would be very dependant on the types of wheelchairs that were available.  With this in mind, I ventured into the history of wheelchairs.

Early images of wheelchairs are found in stone carvings in China and on a Greek vase.  The former showing a wheeled transport device and the latter a wheeled bed for a child.  But despite these early records, the first known dedicated wheelchair was invented in 1595.  It was made for Phillip II of Spain and had small wheels at the end of the chair’s legs, a platform for his legs and an adjustable backrest.  It wasn’t self propelled but then again he was a king so was probably surrounded by servants anyway!

Sixty years later, Stephen Farffler made a self propelling chair which was mounted on a three wheel chassis and had handles on the front wheel which allowed the user to move without assistance.  The handles operated a bit like a hand bike…

Possibly the best known early wheelchair is the Bath chair, named after the city, not the washing facility.  It was created by John Dawson and had two large wheels and one small.  It was steered using a stiff handle but was very heavy and had to be pushed or pulled.  This version of the wheelchair outsold others in the early 19th century but it wasn’t comfortable and so adjustments and improvements were made over time.

In 1869 we have a patent for the first wheelchair with rear push wheels and small front casters, something we would easily recognise today.  Again, this model needed improving and a few years later, hollow rubber wheels were used, pushrims for self propelling were invented in 1881 and in 1900 we find the first spoked wheels.

Injured soldiers returning home from World War Two were more likely to survive certain injuries because of the discovery of antibiotics.  This meant that there was a sudden influx of people who had spinal injuries etc that would previously have killed them.  In turn, this meant an increased need for wheelchairs.  Depending on their injury, some of these veterans would have been unable to self propel and, having previously been active, would have found themselves dependant on others.

It was one of these soldiers, who was frustrated with his situation, who advocated for a better wheelchair.  This combined with Canada’s commitment to veteran support, resulted in a request to George Klein to build a brand new type of wheelchair.  After Canadian vets had been given their electrically powered chairs, an effort was made to engage manufacturers.  One of which was Everest & Jennings.

Harry Jennings built the first folding, tubular steel wheelchair in 1932 for his friend Herbert Everest.  They then joined forces to set up Everest & Jennings who monopolised the wheelchair market for years.  In 1956 they were the first to mass produce electric wheelchairs.  These were fairly rudimentary, had only two speeds and were very bulky but still, they paved the way for the plethora of electric wheelchairs we have today.

Whilst slightly off topic, it’s worth noting that 1952 saw the beginning of wheelchair sports and by 1960, the first Paralympic games were being held.  The increased visibility of people with wheelchairs alongside the more specialised uses for them, almost certainly aided the refinement and variety of chairs that we are now lucky to have.

Moving forward, in the second half of the twentieth century, developments to the wheelchair happened quickly.  Motors were added to standard wheelchairs, then lightweight aluminium was used and the availability of plastic inevitably led to further innovations. Further, as computer technology boomed in the last fifty or so years, we have seen these enhance and improve the available powerchair technology.

Today we have wheelchairs that can be used in sports, that are very lightweight, that can raise the user up so that we can sit at bars, that can be controlled in different ways and which ultimately allow many more people control over their movement.  Wheelchairs, powered or not, are highly customisable and although I haven’t sat in a pre-20th century one, I can imagine, are significantly more comfortable and allow for a better quality of life.

Aside, please don’t use the term wheelchair bound.  A lot of wheelchair users can walk or stand, and even those who can’t, aren’t tied to their chairs.  It also makes it seem like wheelchairs are a terrible burden and whilst they aren’t perfect, they are amazing and significantly improve people’s lives.

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