The Very First Wheelchair?
There is no absolute certainty as to who invented the wheelchair. Rather like the wheel itself, versions have been about since time immemorial. But what we do know is that in 1595 an ‘invalid’s chair’ was made for King Phillip II of Spain. The maker remains anonymous. 60 years later in 1655, a paraplegic watchmaker, Stephen Farfler made himself a three-wheeled, self-propelling wheelchair.
The Bath Wheelchair.
Hands up who knows how the Bath Wheelchair gained its name… Was it the shape, the name of the inventor or the place?
Well, the inventor was John Dawson and he was from Bath. So, despite the bath-like shape, the wheelchair was named after the City. Dawson designed the wheelchair to have two large wheels at the back and a single ‘steering-wheel’ at the front. His design was so popular, thathis ‘Bath Chair’ outsold all other wheelchairs during the early part of the 19th century.
Despite the Bath Wheelchair’s popularity, it wasn’t terribly comfortable. So, in the second half of the 1800’s, various inventors set about improving the design. A patent lodged in 1869 described a Wheelchair with large rear wheels and smaller, caster type front wheels. As the century wore on, innovations, similar to those of bicycles, added hollow rubber tyres on metal rims. In 1881 came the now familiar ‘push rims” which allowed wheelchairs users to self-propel.
In 1916, London saw the manufacture of the first ‘motorised’ wheelchair. Given the technology of the time, it wasn’t commercially successful.
The really big innovation in the first half of the 1900’s was the folding wheelchair. Recognisable today, US Engineer Harry Jennings built the first folding, tubular steel wheelchair for his close friend Herbert Everest in 1932. Everest had been injured in a mining accident and was paraplegic. The friends founded Everest and Jennings and became the world’s biggest suppliers of wheelchairs with a stranglehold on wheelchair supplies in the US for 50 years or so. In 1980 they recorded sales of $145 million. But by the 1990’s they hit financial trouble and were sold to Graham-Field Health Products who eventually closed down the factory. GFHP still use the name Everest & Jennings today.
Electric and Motorised Wheelchairs.
Following the end of the Second WW, Canadian Inventor George Klein, working for the National Research Council of Canada with a team of engineers, led a program to assist returning veterans. Previous attempts to create a viable electrically powered wheelchair had not been successful, but George Klein and his team cracked it!
The electric powered wheelchair technology was first manufactured on a mass scale by Everest & Jennings in the US in 1956.
The wheelchairs of today owe their fundamental design to inventors from the 19th and 20th centuries. Modern and lighter materials such as carbon fibre and aluminium have made their way into mainstream manufacturing and there’s loads of stuff for kids. Mobility challenged individuals are now participating in a number of international sports: tennis, rugby and basketball and have sophisticated and robust designs to cope with the rigours of sport.
Innovation today is less about the wheelchair itself and more about the manner in which the user can have more control and be independent. Braingate and John Donoghue are developing really exciting implant technology designed to help those with neurological impairments operate their wheelchair by thought. This is called ‘brain-computer interface’ and you can find out more about it here
At Mobility Shop we have a huge range of contemporary wheelchairs for adults and for children. You can find self-propelled or transit wheelchairs and powerpacks to help attendants with slightly tougher or steeper terrain. We’re always on the lookout to add to our range, so if you’re a supplier or you have any suggestions, drop us a line on firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on 0800-0855-595