What are Wheelchairs

Wheelchairs are fundamentally a chair with wheels that are typically manually or power-driven. The chair serves as a device for those who have mobility issues as a product of possibly old age, injury, illness or disability.

Ancient Times

As early as 6th century AD, stone inscriptions from Ancient China and Greece suggest that wheelchair-type furniture existed. An image on a Greek vase can be seen of a wheeled child’s bed. The earliest validated record of a wheelchair came in the form of an inscription on a stone slate in China (Ruscoe 2019).

Ancient Chinese Engraving (Wikipedia)

17th-18th Century

In 1595, an elaborate chair with plush upholstery, arm, and leg rests with four small wheels was created for King Phillip of Spain. In 1655, the first-propelled wheelchair was made by Stephan Farfler, a parplegic clock-maker of Nuremberg, Germany. Using turning handles, the three-wheel chassis attached to a front wheel turned the wheels using cranks to propel the vehicle forward (Ruscoe 2019). 

King Phillip II Wheelchair (Medtech Design)

Fafler’s Wheelchair (Medtech Design)

In the second half of the eighteenth century, many wheelchair development scame from a location named Bath, England. In 1783, John Dawson created a “Bath Chair” supported by two wheels and an axel underneath the seat. The front footrest also had a wheel to steer and direct (Anderson 2013).

The Bath Chair (Medtech Design)

20th Century

From 1910-1920, the Science Museum Group developed a self-propelled wheelchair: the three main wheels were driven using chains and a series of hand cranks (Science Museum Group). In the 1930s, American engineers Harry Jennings and Herbert Everest created the X-frame folding wheelchair. This design allowed the chair to easily fold for transport (Everest and Jennings 1939). The wheelchair was utilized by President Roosevelt and at one point the company dominated 90 percent of the wheelchair industry. 

Modern X Frame Folding Wheelchair from Everest and Jennings (Medtech Design)

Post-1930s, production of wheelchairs began using different materials like aluminum and titanium. These were lighter than the older steel models. In the 1950s, the Model 8 was created and was unique for its ability to be maneuvered either by the patient via the metal rims attached to each wheel or pushing participant (Nias 2019).

In 1956,  the first electric-powered wheelchair came to be. Canadian inventor, George Klein with the National Research Council of Canada sought to assist the injured veterans returning after World War II (Bourgeois-Doyle 2017). The wheelchair took a different purpose in the 1990s with the Shadow Racer, a sports wheelchair created by Jim Martinson, injured Vietnam veteran (Nias 2019).

George Klein and others with his Klein Drive Chair (Medtech Design)

Development of Electric Wheelchair

In 1952, George Klein, a Canadian engineer, worked with the Canadian Veterans Affairs to develop the first practical electric wheelchair. In 1956, Everest & Jennings went on to market it (United Spinal Association 2019). The development of the electric wheelchair was motivated by the number of WWII veterans who returned paralyzed and unable to push the normal wheelchair.

The Role of Paralympics and its Advancement of the Wheelchair

Advances in the 20th century wheelchair came from wheelchair athletes customizing the chair themselves. The big things were to reduce weight and increase performance. In 1979, this resulted in the Quickie, a rigid-frame wheelchair (United Spinal Association 2019). Marilyn Hamilton, Jim Okamoto, and Don Helman were the creators and the lighter weight and increased performance matched by improved aesthetics and color let to large improvements.

Quickie (Everybody)

In 1984, designers like Bob Hall made the Hallmark, a racing wheelchair of artistic beauty. It went on display at the Museum of Modern Art in 1986 and was a popular consumer item as well (United Spinal Association 2019).

Hallmark (MOMA)

21st Century

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 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 (Braingate).

Brain Gate (Brown University)

Self-Driving Chair Development in Asia

In 2016, Japanese car maker Nissan released the Propilot, a self-driving chair. The chair was intended for those waiting in line for a restaurant in line (Vogel 2018). Further developments came from WHILL NEXT, a mobility chair that is driverless. The invention began in 2009 and took it a long process to research and funding until it was released in 2014. Multiple models were released until 2020 when it was showcased at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. People at airports were able to use their phones to take travelers to their gates based on their locations (WHILL). The WHILL is now sold in Asia, Europe, and America and worth hundreds of millions in valuation.

Propilot (New Mobility)