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The History Of The Wheelchair

Posted by Jan Payne on August 3, 2020

Three different wheelchairs, as well as some wheelchair bags, drink holders and a umbrella that are all for sale on the Ability Superstore website

Before the wheelchair was invented, “sedan chairs” were used. These “chairs” didn’t have any wheels. Instead, they had two poles either side of a box that had a chair inside. It was used for transporting people and needed two people at the front and two at the back to lift it and walk with it while elevated.

The first wheeled chairs were thought to have been introduced in Europe in the 12th century, but there don’t appear to be any surviving drawings, or details about them in existence anymore.

It was not until 1655 that documentary evidence of a self-propelled chair for use by disabled people materialised.

Stephan Farfler, a 22-year-old paraplegic watchmaker from Germany, designed a three-wheeled chair that he operated by turning handles on the sides of a box housed above the front wheel, which in turn rotated the single front wheel.

In the second half of the 18th century, rickshaws, a type of wheelchair pulled from the front, became commonplace in Asia, particularly China, and were also popular in many western countries. At about this time, designs for wheelchairs began to be drawn up in Britain, particularly in Bath.

The city of Bath in Somerset was an important spa town, catering to able and disabled people from all over Britain and Europe who came to ‘take the waters’. People would soak in (and drink!) the naturally hot mineral water flowing into bathing pools built by the Romans. Infirm bathers could also make use of physicians and physiotherapists based there, too. Many of the visitors had difficulty getting to and from the baths. Several innovative inventions were developed in the city to help with transportation.

The best known of the wheelchairs from this period was the aptly named Bath Chair. Designed by John Dawson in 1783, it was made from cane, or wicker, over a wooden frame. It had two large wheels at the back and a small wheel in front that the user could steer by turning a handlebar while being pushed by a helper.

The Science Museum in London has a Bath chair made for Queen Victoria. Also developed for the Queen, at Sandringham in Norfolk, is something that people at the time called a wheelchair, but it’s more like a wooden chair with attached wheels!

All the wheelchairs up until now had one drawback ­ they couldn’t be folded up and easily transported.

In the 1930s, a paraplegic American, Herbert Everest, and Harry Jenkins invented the ‘X-frame’ folding wheelchair.

Since then, continuous improvements have been made. Nowadays, we have ultra-lightweight Self-Propelled Wheelchairs, which are easily manoeuvrable both in the home and outdoors. We also have Power Chairs which, as the name suggests, are powered and so do not require any physical intervention such as propelling yourself with your arms or getting someone to push you. There’s also a device called a Powerstroller that converts a standard wheelchair into a Power Chair. 

Specialised chairs designed for competitive sports like tennis, volleyball and even speed racing are now commonplace – liberating users who can take an active part in sporting activities instead of being mere spectators.

Nothing has improved the comfort, the convenience, or the independence of the less mobile than the modern wheelchair. It may have taken a while to get to this point, but it’s been well worth the wait and is undoubtedly one of the most common mobility aids seen out and about. 

There are hundreds of different accessories available for the humble wheelchair too from wheelchair capes and wheelchair macs to wheelchair umbrellas and wheelchair cosies (all definitely required for the Great British weather!). There’s also drinks holders, stick holders, wheelchair cushions and a massive range of wheelchair bags providing lots of storage on board!