For people who rely on wheelchairs to get around, this piece of equipment has become such a fundamental part of their everyday lives that it may be hard to imagine a time when it didn’t exist. As with most human inventions, the wheelchair made its debut because of a challenge (limited mobility) that someone eventually saw as an opportunity to create a helpful solution. And as more people became familiar with it, a few key modifications evolved the wheelchair into the complex and varied models available today. And it’s still changing to suit contemporary users’ abilities and lifestyles!
Let’s take a look at some highlights of the wheelchair’s evolution throughout history:
Earliest Known Wheelchairs
Though no one knows exactly when the first rolling chair was invented, some of the first evidence of such a device was discovered on an ancient Greek vase dated around 525 BC. 6th century stone carvings and tapestries from China depict wheeled transportation devices, and many scholars believe that this is where the history of the wheelchair begins in earnest. Wheelbarrows were also used in 4th-6th Century China to move people and heavy objects.
The first known wheelchair in the Western world was designed in 1595 for King Phillip II of Spain. It had arm and leg rests, but could not be self-propelled. In 1680, the Chinese philosopher Confucius was drawn in a wheeled handcart pushed from behind that resembles a wheelchair.
Creation of the Self-sufficient Wheelchair
Many consider the first self-propelled wheelchair to be the “manumotive carriage,” invented in 1655 by Stephen Farfler, a disabled watchmaker. This wheelchair featured three wheels and crank-like handles above the front wheel that the user would rotate to move forward.
Perhaps the first wheelchair to be widely distributed was the Bath chair, designed by John Dawson in 1783 to transport people to the healing waters in his town. This reclined chair with large rear wheels and a smaller front wheel had a handle attached to the front wheel for the user to steer, but had to be pushed from behind or pulled by a donkey or horse. The Bath wheelchair outsold other models of wheelchairs for 40 years.
When the Industrial Revolution of the 19th Century came around, bicycle and carriage makers made rapid improvements in their new models. Wooden wheels were replaced by metal ones with rubber tires, and more durable metals were used. Details were added for user comfort such as padded parts and improved arm and leg rests. The first United States patent for a wheelchair was issued in 1869.
20th Century Wheelchairs and Beyond
With the 20th Century came much more adaptable and user-friendly wheelchairs. Folding wheelchairs became available along with lightweight, sports models, standing and slim wheelchairs. The first electric powered wheelchair was invented by Canadian George Klein in 1953 to assist veterans injured in World War II. Though he tried to hide his paralysis and fashioned his own small-sized wheelchair from a kitchen chair, Franklin D. Roosevelt was famously our first wheelchair-using president.
As we move further into the 21st Century, one thing is certain—the wheelchair will continue to evolve. The needs of wheelchair users will continue to be the focus of that evolution and Troy Tech is exceptionally proud to be at the forefront of it. Our FLUX Dart and Slim-Line chairs were designed for comfort and function in contemporary homes, unlike the most widely available standard wheelchairs, and our travel chairs are lightweight and durable for active lifestyles.
The latest FLUX innovation is our KZI power chair made of ultra-light and strong magnesium alloy. It has the same ergonomic and foldable profile as our other travel chairs with the addition of a 24V motor and lithium-ion battery. Users control the chair with a simple joystick and speed knob, and the cables are all hidden inside the frame for a long lifetime of use!