December 22, 2016

The History of the Wheelchair

History of Wheelchair - PA Healthcare

The best inventions in history have improved our daily lives in one way or another. The wheelchair is one of the best inventions of modern times, particularly for people with disabilities. And for those of us caring for someone with limited mobility, it’s hard to imagine life without it.

Have you ever wondered who invented the wheelchair? We sure have. The wheelchair is one of those everyday items that we sometimes look at and think: Whoever first decided to put large, manually powered wheels on a chair was a genius.

While we call the wheelchair a “modern invention,” its history can actually be traced back through thousands of years! Read on for a peek into the history of the wheelchair.   

Early developments: Chinese wheelbarrows

Necessity is the mother of invention, the famous saying goes, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the earliest known wheelchairs were actually repurposed wheelbarrows.

Chinese records from the 2nd century BCE show disabled people being transported by the common farm tool capable of hauling a hundred pounds or more, and several centuries worth of innovation later, images of wheeled chairs used specifically for people began to appear in Chinese art around 525 CE.

Royal inspiration: The invalid chair

While Chinese farmers are the first on record to devise wheeled transportation for the disabled, it took a disabled European king to spark the innovation that would lead to modern versions of the device.

In his old age during the late 16th century, King Phillip II of Spain used a reclining “invalid chair” with adjustable arms and leg rests. The inventor’s name has been lost to history, but his inspiration will live on.

Key innovation: Self-propulsion

Despite increasing representation in art, rudimentary wheelchairs were still an oddity by the mid-17th century when a 22-year-old paraplegic watchmaker named Stephen Farfler built a three-wheeled chair to get himself around.

But his version featured one key innovation that set it apart from previous models: a self-propelling rotating handle attached the front wheel, eliminating the need for servants or caretakers for transportation.

Market popularity: The Bath Chair

Just a century after Farfler’s spark of genius, self-propelling technology took a backseat to luxury with the invention of the Bath Chair, named after the origin of its inventor, James Heath, in Bath, England. A plush chair with a folding hood mounted on three or four wheels, the Bath Chair was intended to be drawn by a horse or donkey, but it featured a turning lever for the rider to change direction.

English inventor John Dawson created a commercially viable version of the Bath Chair in 1783, and while other versions of wheelchairs were available at the time, the Bath Chair outsold them all.

Added functionality: Push-rim wheelchairs

The Bath Chair continued to dominate the market through the mid-19th century, but for all its surface luxury, it was heavy, uncomfortable, and dependent on others for locomotion. Later in the 19th century, a patent was issued in the US for a wicker-backed wheelchair with large hind wheels and a pair of small front casters, resembling the wheelchairs of today.

More innovations such as metal wheels were implemented, but the most important update aside from the more comfortable seating and lighter weight was the addition of rubber wheels with push rims—bringing self-propulsion back into the spotlight.

Mass production: The folding wheelchair

The wicker-backed design was quite popular into the 20th century, but there was still room for innovation. In 1932, American mechanical engineer Harold Jennings build a collapsible, steel-framed wheelchair for his disabled friend Herbert Everest. The pair perfected the design and started the Everest & Jennings company to mass produce it.

While their manufacturing efforts brought practical transportation to disabled people all over the world, it was at great cost—the partners bought out competitors for decades and charged exorbitant prices until the US Department of Justice stopped them with an antitrust suit in 1977.

Dramatic mobility: The motorized wheelchair

As foldable, self-propelled wheelchairs improved the lives of paraplegics and otherwise disabled people throughout the 20th century, they did not offer the same benefits to quadriplegics and other disabled people with limited upper-body strength.

The Everest & Jennings company developed an early version of the motorized wheelchair to fill this need, but Canadian inventor George Klein developed a wheelchair with a powerful motor and a joystick for control. And in a move that is probably regretted to this day by Klein’s descendants, he ended up giving the design away to Everest & Jennings after Canadian companies refused to manufacture it.

Focusing on the future: What’s next for wheelchairs?

Wheelchair technology has already experienced incredible developments in the centuries since dual-purpose Chinese wheelbarrows, which means there are more innovations yet to come. Future versions might be controlled by neurological impulses, or perhaps locomotive prosthetics will eliminate the need for chairs entirely.

For now, PA Healthcare offers a variety of standard and motorized wheelchairs for purchase or rental, along with a full range of affordable at-home medical supplies. Plus, we deliver anywhere in San Diego County, so let us bring mobility directly to you. Give us a call today!

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