Many of us take the wheelchair for granted. Its design and function has evolved over the years – modified, improved and even motorized. So when was the first wheelchair invented and how did the wheelchair make its way into today?

The earliest record of the wheelchair dates back to the 6th century with proof seen through Chinese inscriptions. Others say the wheelchair was invented during the times of Christ. But the best illustrated wheelchair design dates back to 1595 showing the wheelchair invented for King Phillip II of Spain. This drawing of the King shows him in his chair with its wheels, armrests and footrests. The chair was far from perfect in that it had to be pushed by an assistant and looked like a baby’s highchair, but it most likely provided great mobility.

By 1665 an inventor named Stephan Farfler, a paraplegic watchmaker, came up with the idea of a self-propelled vehicle. This wheelchair looked more like a present day hand-bike as it was propelled by hand cranks attached to the front wheel.

In 1783 John Dawson, an inventor from Bath, England, came up with the “Dawson’s Bath Chair”. Bath, a place where many invalids traveled to drink and bathe in the spa water, inspired Dawson. This chair with its third wheel that the occupant could steer by using an attached rigid handle was a great success.

Dawson’s design evolved and changed over the years and included a chair that resembled a cart in that it came with a hood and glass front or it had to be pushed from behind or pulled by a small horse or donkey.

During the nineteenth century, wheelchairs became less cumbersome and more comfortable. As a result, some users were able to turn the large rear wheels with their hands, although this could be unpleasant if the chair ran through a patch of mud. The problem was solved in 1881 when manufacturers began to add a second rim with a smaller circumference to each wheel. These rims kept the hands clean and were known as push rims.

The push rims evolved later into a few varieties. A one-arm drive enables a user to guide and propel a wheelchair from one side. Two hand rims, one smaller than the other, are located on one side of the chair, left or right. On most models the outer, or smaller rim, is connected to the opposite wheel by a folding axle. When both hand rims are grasped together, the chair may be propelled forward or backward in a straight line.

By the beginning of the twentieth century, wheelchairs had developed still further and boasted wire-spoke wheels, adjustable seat backs, and moveable arm and foot rests. There were also lightweight models made of wicker mounted on metal frames.

By 1916, British engineers had produced the first motorized wheelchair, although the majority of users remained in manual versions, which were becoming much cheaper. Despite this, the chairs were still rigid and difficult to store and transport, particularly in cars. But in 1932, a Los Angeles engineer named Harry Jennings designed and built a folding wheelchair for his friend, Herbert Everest. The two men immediately saw the potential for this invention and established a company to mass-produce the new portable chairs. 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.

It hasn’t been until recently, within the last two decades that the wheelchair design has progressed. Today’s wheelchairs are lighter and perform better than ever before. Some chairs even have suspension systems, which help to remove vibrations and jolts. There are customized chairs and chairs with ultra-light weight frames which enable better performance. There are chairs with optional accessories available such as anti-tip bars or wheels, safety belts, adjustable backrests, tilt and/or recline features, extra support for limbs or neck, mounts or carrying devices for crutches, walkers or oxygen tanks, drink holders, and clothing protectors.

Last is the electric wheelchair. These wheelchairs can be driven forwards, backwards, sideways, and diagonally, and also turned round on the spot or turned around while moving, all operated from a simple joystick. Early power chairs used belts in the drive train. The motor turned a rotor which had a belt wrapped around it, and the belt transmitted the power to the wheels. Today’s chairs use direct drive, meaning the motor turns gears, which in turn move the power through a gear transmission to the wheels. Direct drive is more reliable and needs less maintenance.

Yes the wheelchair has come a long way and who knows what the wheelchair of tomorrow will look like as its design continues to progress.About The Author
Wheelchair Getaways is the leading wheelchair van rental company in the United States. We rent wheelchair vans and scooter accessible vans in almost every city in the US. We offer 24-hour emergency assistance, a knowledgeable staff, and the adaptive features that make traveling safe and comfortable. Visit online at today.


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