A wheelchair is an indispensable aid for millions of disabled people round the world, in order to give them mobility and independence (I know this myself from having been in a wheelchair for 3 months following an accident. Boy, was I glad to have it!) Even the most basic, purely manual wheelchair, like the one I had, costs several hundred pounds (British money), and makes a huge difference to the lives of its users. These days there are wheelchairs which are motorised and highly specialised and sophisticated, very elaborate and expensive pieces of technology. However they have been around in more primitive forms throughout history.
Obviously the electronic ones are a product of the latter part of the 20th century, but in actual fact the most basic wheelchairs have been in existence for many hundreds of years. The earliest record of them dates back to the 6th century,in an inscription which was found on a stone slate in China. Later records suggest that they were being used in Europe during the German renaissance of the 14th and 15th centuries (the time of Martin Luther). The name of the first inventor of the wheelchair is unknown, however a dedicated vehicle, invented in 1595 and called an invalids' chair, was made for King Philip II of Spain . Then, in 1655 a paraplegic watchmaker called Stephen Farfler made himself a self-propelling chair on a three-wheel chassis.
The most famous of the historical wheelchairs was the Bath chair, or invalid carriage, invented by John Dawson of Bath, in England. He designed a chair with two large wheels and one small one,(see picture) which outsold all the other ones available throughout the early part of the 19th century, and it was often used by invalids coming to take the waters for their health in the spa town of Bath. But this Bath chair was not very comfortable and many improvements were made to the original design during the 19th century, especially in the last half of this period. In 1900 the first spoked wheels were used and in 1916 the first motorised wheelchair was produced in London. In 1933 two mechanical engineers, one of whom was disabled, having broken his back in an accident, invented the first steel, lightweight, collapsible chair. Their names were Herbert Everest, who was the disabled one, and Harry Jennings, and they went on to become the first mass-manufacturers of wheelchairs. Their original “X-brace” design is still in use, although now it has been updated and improved, and new materials added.
The very first electric wheelchair was invented in the 1950s in Canada by George Johann Klein, and was hailed as Canada's Great Invention. It is now on display at Canada's Science and Technology Museum. The Second World War was a major catalyst in this type of chair being designed, as there was a large influx of war veterans who had been injured in battle and needed more mobility. This electronic chair was a godsend to quadriplegics, who until then had had no way to move themselves around (the manual chairs were only of use to the paraplegics). The electronic chairs are propelled, for example, by joysticks or chin controls, or other mechanisms.
I am sure life would be unimaginable for so many disabled people these days if it wasn't for this marvellous invention which has given them a good deal of their freedom of movement and independence back.
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Picture courtesy of www.oldbike.eu