History of the Wheelchair

Shingo Kunieda of Japan competes in the mens singles wheelchair first round match against Stefan Olsson of Sweden


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It is uncertain as to what can be considered the first wheelchair, or who invented it. The first known dedicated wheelchair (invented in 1595 and called an invalid's chair) was made for Phillip II of Spain by an unknown inventor. In 1655, Stephen Farfler, a paraplegic watchmaker, built a self-propelling chair on a three-wheel chassis.

The Bath Wheelchair

In 1783, John Dawson of Bath, England, invented a wheelchair named after the town of Bath. Dawson designed a chair with two large wheels and one small one. The Bath wheelchair outsold all other wheelchairs throughout the early part of the 19th century.

Late 1800s

The Bath wheelchair was not that comfortable and during the last half of the 19th century, many improvements were made to wheelchairs. An 1869 patent for a wheelchair showed the first model with rear push wheels and small front casters. Between, 1867 to 1875, inventors added new hollow rubber wheels similar to those used on bicycles on metal rims. In 1881, the pushrims for added self-propulsion were invented.

The 1900s

In 1900, the first spoked wheels were used on wheelchairs. In 1916, the first motorized wheelchair was manufactured in London.

The Folding Wheelchair

In 1932, engineer, Harry Jennings, built the first folding, tubular steel wheelchair. That was the earliest wheelchair similar to what is in modern use today. That wheelchair was built for a paraplegic friend of Jennings called Herbert Everest. Together they founded Everest & Jennings, a company that monopolized the wheelchair market for many years. An antitrust suit was actually brought against Everest & Jennings by the Department of Justice, who charged the company with rigging wheelchair prices. The case was finally settled out of court.

First Motorized Wheelchair - Electric Wheelchair

The first wheelchairs were self-powered and worked by a patient turning the wheels of their chair manually. If a patient was unable to do this, another person would have to push the wheelchair and patient from behind. A motorized or power wheelchair is one where a small motor drives the wheels to revolve. Attempts to invent a motorized wheelchair were made as far back as 1916, however, no successful commercial production occurred at that time.

The first electric-powered wheelchair was invented by Canadian inventor, George Klein and his team of engineers while working for the National Research Council of Canada in a program to assist the injured veterans returning after World War II. George Klein also invented the microsurgical staple gun.

Everest & Jennings, the same company whose founders created the folding wheelchair were the first to manufacture the electric wheelchair on a mass scale beginning in 1956.

Mind Control

John Donoghue and Braingate invented a new wheelchair technology intended for a patient with very limited mobility, who otherwise would have issues using a wheelchair by themselves. The BrainGate device is implanted into the patient's brain and hooked to a computer to which the patient can send mental commands that results in any machine including wheelchairs doing what they want it to. The new technology is called BCI or brain-computer interface.

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Bellis, Mary. "History of the Wheelchair." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/history-of-the-wheelchair-1992670. Bellis, Mary. (2020, August 27). History of the Wheelchair. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-wheelchair-1992670 Bellis, Mary. "History of the Wheelchair." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/history-of-the-wheelchair-1992670 (accessed March 29, 2023).