No one knows for sure when the first wheelchair was invented, but its origins date back to ancient times. The earliest records of a wheeled transport device were found in a stone carving in China and a picture on a Greek vase of a children’s bed with wheels.
The first known wheelchair deliberately designed for disability and mobility was called the “disabled chair”. In 1595, King of Spain II. It was specially invented for Phillip. The chair had small wheels attached to the ends of his legs and included a platform for Phillip’s legs and an adjustable backrest. It could not be self-propelled or motorized, of course, but most likely the King had servants who always carried it and pushed this chair.
In 1783, John Dawson from Bath, England, invented a wheelchair and named it after his town. The Bath wheelchair had two large wheels at the back and a small wheel in front of it.
The user would manipulate the chair with a stiff handle, but all Bath designs had to be pushed or pulled by a donkey or horse as they were heavy. The Bath wheelchair outperformed all other wheelchair models for 40 years.
Jumping to 1655, Steven Farffler was a young German watchmaker with a disability that restricted his mobility. He was the first to invent and use a wheelchair that can be moved independently. It was a fixed chair mounted on a 3-wheel chassis that was used to push the chair forward, with handles attached to either side of the front wheel. Believed to be paralyzed, Mr. Farffler created the wheelchair himself when he was only 22 years old!
Later, in the 1800s, the first wheelchairs were developed that looked more like today’s designs. In 1869, a self-propelled wheelchair with large wheels in the back was patented. Wheelchairs were beginning to become less bulky, but still weren’t easily transportable until 1932, when the collapsible steel tube version was made by Harry Jennings. Harry Jennings was an engineer who designed it for his friend Herbert Everest. Together they formed the company Everest and Jennings, which had been a monopoly in the wheelchair industry for decades.
Electric wheelchairs were invented by George Klein and others after World War II to help injured veterans. As you know, designs have steadily improved in size and weight since then and are tailored to the individual’s needs. They are even currently developing a new “iBot type chair” (the old iBot chair is currently discontinued and extremely expensive), it can rise up to two wheels, climb up and down stairs, move on sand, gravel and water, and it cannot be easily inverted. Some think that in the future, wheelchairs can be controlled by neurological impulses from the brain.