The earliest depiction of a wheelchair can be found on an ancient Chinese engraving from 535 A.D. However wheelbarrow like chairs were used as early as the third century. These early wheelchairs were often used tote around people who were too rich or important to walk on their own. One of the most famous early wheelchair users was Philip II of Spain who suffered from gout, other wise known as the “rich man’s disease.” The wheelchair began to take on its modern form in the 18th century. Belgium-born inventor John Joseph Merlin, inventor of roller skates, created a maneuverable, sedan-like wheelchair for people with gout.

Improvements were made upon the sedan wheelchair and the predecessor of modern upright, self-propelled chair came to be. This early modern wheelchair was known as the Bath Chair. It was invented by John Dawson of Bath, England. The chair was constructed with two large wheels and one small one. The chair was used to move immobile people to spa waters. This wheel chair was much more maneuverable and outsold all other models even into the early 19th century.

Yet despite the progress that the Bath chair made, it was still not very comfortable for people to sit in for many hours, and it was still extremely large and bulky. In 1869, a patent was developed for wheelchairs with rear push wheels and small front casters. During this time, hollow rubber wheels were added to metal rims on the chairs. By 1881, pushrims were invented so that users of wheelchairs could push themselves. By 1916, a motorized wheel chair had already been invented. By then, the wheelchair was much more compact with the lightweight models weighing only 58 pounds.

In 1933, Herbert A. Everest, a paraplegic, sought a wheelchair that could be placed in a car. Everest’s friend and engineer Harry Jennings would work to design the first metal foldable wheelchair. Furthermore, Jennings and Everest would go on to found Everest & Jennings, a wheelchair company that would dominate the market for many years. The wheelchair would undergo many modifications during the course of history. The rise of the automobile led to the creation of compact wheelchairs. Improved medical services and better understanding of disabilities would also prompt further innovation.

Most importantly the wheelchair would develop from a rich man’s luxury to a vital device for countless people with disabilities. Today the wheelchair is one of the most commonly used devices for aiding in personal mobility. According to the World Health Organization, 1% of the world’s population requires the use of a wheelchair. However those needing wheelchairs in developing countries are often unable to obtain wheelchairs due to the lack of production facilities. Furthermore, wheelchairs donated are often insufficiently equipped or ill fitting for the poor in developing nations. Thus today the wheelchair still needs significant innovation to reach the poor. Improvements can be made upon the structure and material so that the wheelchair can be easily built in developing nations. By providing better mobility, the wheelchair can open up doors to better education, work and social lives for people in developing nations.

– Grace Zhao

Sources: History Extra, Inventors, Wheelchair Net, World Health Organization