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History of the Wheelchair

Posted by Francis Whitehead on September 12, 2023

Text reads "History of the Wheelchair" on a classroom blackboard, with a wheelchair and a globe below it.

Wheelchairs have to be one of the most important and life-changing inventions ever made and are a staple of mobility aids. Today the wheelchair is one of the most commonly used devices for assisting independent living for people with disabilities. Considered a basic human right for people with limited mobility by the World Health Organisation, it has the ability to vastly improve the quality of life for people all around the world.

Used by millions and evolved in many different forms, have you ever wondered about how the origins of the humble wheelchair came to be?

The First Wheelchair

While there is some uncertainty about what could be the first ever wheelchair, stone inscriptions from Ancient China and Greece suggest that wheelchair-type furniture has been used at least since the sixth century AD, which makes it as old as backgammon and matches!

While wheeled seats have technically existed since the invention of the wheel, it took centuries for these devices to become an accessible mobility aid for all to use.

For example, in 1595, King Philip II of Spain commissioned one of his boffins to create something to help get him around while he suffered from severe gout. This chair was rather exquisite in its design with its plush upholstery, arm and leg rests, which made it look like a throne on wheels! Truly a mobility aid fit for a king as he was pushed by his servants daily.

It took a few decades later for the creation of the first self-propelled wheelchair, in 1655 by German clockmaker Stephan Farfler, who used his expertise to build his own mobility aid at 22 years old. This mobility aid in question was built using a three-wheel chassis with hand cranks attached to the front wheel.

Illustration of the three-wheeled self-propelled wheelchair created by Stephan Farfler

Flash forward to century after and this three-wheeled design still prevailed, this time in merry old Bath, England. This design was known as the bath chair and helped transport the wealthy elite around the serene Roman baths. These chairs were constructed from wicker and were lightweight and comfortable, much like today’s wheelchairs.

An 18th century wicker Bath Chair

As time went on, patents show that throughout the nineteenth century many improvements were made to the wheelchair as it became more accessible, especially after the Civil War and World War I, with many soldiers left with injuries that compromised their mobility. However, at this time wheelchairs were still only available in hospitals and were not seen as an assistive device for daily living.

So perhaps the most commercially successful wheelchair to be marketed was the revolutionary ‘X-frame’ folding wheelchair. It was developed in the 1930s by American engineers Harry Jennings and Herbert Everest, after the latter lost the use of his legs in a mining accident, and elements of its design are still used in wheelchairs today.

1930s X-Frame Wheelchair

It would become the first mass-produced wheelchair—and the most popular design of its time. Suddenly, wheelchair users could propel themselves outside, get into and out of cars, and go where they wanted with little or no assistance.

Mobility for All

With this new mass-produced design becoming a revolutionary mobility aid for disabled people, innovation kept marching on. A new generation of wheelchair users gave their input and feedback to manufacturers, and starting in the 1960s, wheelchair athletes in search of better performance started modifying their chairs to make them lighter and easier to use.

Athletes reduced the chairs’ weight by removing the handles others once used to push them and started modifying the wheels, adding speed and manoeuvrability.

With disabled athletes free to perform at their full ability, this in turn led to the rise of The Paralympics, with sports such as wheelchair basketball and wheelchair tennis taking place.

The Wheelchair Today

These lighter, more manoeuvrable chairs didn’t just change the daily lives of the people who used them—they changed their self-perception. The history of wheelchair development helped aid people towards a more independent life, and these innovations are still present today.

That’s why Ability Superstore would like to show you some prime examples of fantastic wheelchairs.

Days Escape Lite Self-Propelled Wheelchair

Days Escape Lite Self-Propelled Wheelchair

The compact size and portable weight of this Days Escape Lite Self-Propelled Wheelchair makes this mobility aid ideal for manoeuvring around tight spaces and door frames inside your home.

One of our most popular wheelchairs, it features a clever compacting mechanism, which allows you to easily fold this chair into an smaller size, making it the perfect mobility aid for travel as it is easily stored in a car boot.

Available in four eye catching colours and boasting full-length armrests, padded seating and adjustable footrests, this mobility aid really is a fantastic all rounder.

Rollz Motion 2.1

Rollz Motion 2.1

The Rollz Motion 2.1 is a highly innovative walking aid that is both a stylish, lightweight wheelchair and a rollator!

It’s designed with ergonomic grip handles and can be folded into a portable compact package.

One of the few walking aids that converts easily from a rollator to a wheelchair and back again, the Rollz allows you to walk and rest on your own terms.

Airfold Powerchair

Airfold Powerchair

Undoubtedly the cream of the crop when it comes to motorised wheelchairs is the Airfold Powerchair. One of the lightest electric wheelchairs on the market thanks to it’s durable carbon fibre construction, you can be assured you will be manoeuvred with comfort and style.

It comes complete with a USB port for charging small devices, an underseat, easy-to-reach space to store valuables, an aerated backrest that provides deluxe comfort and so much more.

If you want the best, this feature-packed mobility aid is for you.

Get in Touch

And that’s the history of the wheelchair! We hope you have found this blog educational, and if you have any questions or enquiries about any of the products in this article then please don’t hesitate to get in touch. We will be more than happy to help!