Did you know there’s an actual International Wheelchair Day? Don’t feel too bad – most people wouldn’t have, either. Indeed, March 1 brings wheelchair users together from around the world to celebrate the positive impact a wheelchair has made on their lives, and since it was first launched in 2008, such revelries have taken place in Australia, Nepal, Senegal, South Africa, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the United States.
In doing our part, 1800Wheelchair would like to take this opportunity to explore the history behind what has arguably been the most important mobility device ever created. Why do we say that? Well, the wheelchair carries on as a piece of technology that just about everyone on the planet is familiar with, used by millions suffering with disabilities across the globe.
What’s more, the history of this device proves how technological advancements have been ultimately driven by circumstances, changing demands and ingenuity of wheelchair users throughout time.
(Very) Humble Beginnings and Stephan Farffler
While it is uncertain as to what can be considered the very first wheelchair, stone inscriptions from ancient Greece and China suggest that wheelchair-esque furniture has been around since the sixth century AD – at the very least. However, one of the best-documented early examples of what we now recognize as the modern wheelchair was made by an unknown inventor for King Philip of Spain in 1595, who in his later years suffered from severe gout, making walking difficult; this chair boasted what would now be called an elaborate design, with plush upholstery, arm and leg rests and four small wheels which demanded it be pushed around by (at the time) a servant.
The first self-propelled wheelchair was invented in 1655 by Stephan Farffler, a paraplegic clock-maker in Nuremberg, Germany who built his own mobility device when he was only 22, having broken his back as a child. Taking advantage of his clock-maker expertise, Farffler based his wheelchair’s frame on a three-wheel chassis, which worked by turning handles attached to a geared front wheel using a system of cogwheels and cranks. In retrospect, it is easy to envision this wheelchair as a prelude to the modern day bicycle – even though the bike wouldn’t be invented for another few hundred years.
The Science Museum Group has perhaps the most interesting example of a self-propelled chair inspired by Farffler’s design in its collection, the chair boasting three main wheels and driven by chains through two hand cranks on either side of the rider.
From the second half of the 18th century came a number of significant wheelchair developments, namely from the town of Bath, at the time a popular spa town destination for the sick and disabled from across Britain and Europe who sought comfort and healing from the physical therapy approaches and mineral water offered there.
A number of wheelchairs were designed and offered to rent in order to meet the demand created by immobile visitors who took to the waters, the most popular design of this period coming in the form of the “Bath Chair,” brainchild of John Dawson in 1783. This model was supported by two wheels joined by an axle beneath the seat, aided by a small pivoting wheel in front of the supporting footrest. The Bath Chair could be steered by the user via a long curved rod connected to the front wheel, though it still had to be pushed by an assistant or attendant; variations of the chair quickly became very popular and soon rivaled the Sedan Chair – realized as an enclosed box with a seat carried by two men on poles – as the primary form of transportation for the wealthy disabled across Britain.
The aforementioned Science Museum Group even has a Bath Chair made for Queen Victoria in 1893 on display, which was taken advantage of during her later, less-agile years.
According to patents we’ve done research on, many improvements were made to the wheelchair to promote comfort, independence and maneuverability throughout the 19th century, including the invention of push-rims and rear push wheels.
From X-Frame to Model 8
Perhaps the most commercially successful wheelchair to be marketed was the revolutionary X-Frame folding variant, developed in the 1930s by American engineers Herbert Everest and Harry Jennings after the former became paraplegic in a mining accident. In fact, the relatively lightweight and easily transportable chair is still familiar today.
Again, the Science Museum Group Collection has a Model 8 version of this folding wheelchair in its inventory, built in the 1950s and which was used in nursing homes, hospitals and private institutions. The Model 8 could be maneuvered either by the patient via the metal rims attached to each wheel or by an assistant pushing the chair.
Advancements Into Modern Times
Unprecedented advancements in manual wheelchair technology have been implemented since the 1930s, with materials such as titanium and aluminum rendering devices much lighter than older steel versions, to say nothing of the advent of athletic models specifically adapted for sports performance.
The “Shadow Racer” sports wheelchair, as an example, was designed for road and track racing by Jim Martinson, an injured Vietnam veteran, while Quickie Designs manufactured sports wheelchairs alongside tennis and basketball chairs in the early 1990s. The development of sports wheelchairs highlights the role of personal ambition when it was a driving force for technological adaptions and advancements.
Today, the wheelchair is one of the most commonly-used assistive devices for enhancing the personal mobility of people with disabilities, and is actually considered a basic human right for people with limited mobility by the World Health Organization. Indeed, wheelchairs have opened up a whole new world of independence for these folks, enabling participation in economic, social and cultural life they may not have experienced without chairs.
The way we here at 1800Wheelchair see it, International Wheelchair Day is a welcome moment both to celebrate the innovative technological advancements which have changed the lives of millions and to also consider this reality: throughout history, as is still the case today in most developing nations, only the privileged few who need wheelchairs actually had access to them.