It is uncertain as to what can be considered the first wheelchair, or who invented it. However, its origins date back to ancient times. The earliest records of a wheeled transportation device were found on a stone slate in China and a child’s bed depicted in a frieze on a Greek vase, both dating between the 6th and 5th century BCE.
The first records of wheeled seats being used for transporting disabled people date to three centuries later in China; the Chinese used early wheelbarrows to move people as well as heavy objects. A distinction between the two functions was not made for another several hundred years, around 525 CE, when images of wheeled chairs made specifically to carry people begin to occur in Chinese art.
Kink Phillip II of Spain
The first known wheelchair purposefully designed for disability and mobility was called an “invalid’s chair”. It was invented in 1595 specifically for King Phillip II of Spain. The chair had small wheels attached to the end of a chair’s legs and it included a platform for Phillip’s legs and an adjustable backrest. It could not be self-propelled but most likely the King always had servants transporting him around.
First Self-Propelling Chair
In 1655, Stephan Farffler, a 22 year old paraplegic watchmaker, built the world’s first self-propelling chair on a three-wheel chassis using a system of cranks and cogwheels.However, the device had an appearance of a hand bike more than a wheelchair since the design included hand cranks mounted at the front wheel.
The Bath Wheelchair
In 1783, John Dawson of Bath, England, invented a wheelchair named after the town of Bath.
Dawson designed a chair with two large wheels and one small one. The Bath wheelchair outsold all other wheelchairs throughout the early part of the 19th century.
However, the Bath wheelchair was not that comfortable and during the last half of the 19th century many improvements were made to wheelchairs. An 1869 patent for a wheelchair showed the first model with rear push wheels and small front casters. Between, 1867 to 1875, inventors added new hollow rubber wheels similar to those used on bicycles on metal rims. In 1881, the pushrims for added self-propulsion were invented.
The Folding Wheelchair
In 1932, engineer, Harry Jennings, built the first folding, tubular steel wheelchair. That was the earliest wheelchair similar to what is in modern use today.
That wheelchair was built for a paraplegic friend of Jennings called Herbert Everest. Together they founded Everest & Jennings, a company that monopolized the wheelchair market for many years. An antitrust suit was actually brought against Everest & Jennings by the Department of Justice, who charged the company with rigging wheelchair prices.
The case was finally settled out of court.
The First Electric Wheelchair
The first wheelchairs were self-powered, and worked by a patient turning the wheels of their chair manually. Of course, if a patient was unable to do this, another person would have to push the wheelchair and patient from behind. A motorized or power wheelchair is one where a small motor drives the wheels to revolve. Attempts to invent a motorized wheelchair were made as far back as 1916, however, no successful commercial production occurred at that time.
The first electric-powered wheelchair was invented by Canadian inventor, George Klein and his team of engineers while working for the National Research Council of Canada in a program to assist the injured veterans returning after World War II. George Klein also invented the microsurgical staple gun.
Everest & Jennings, the same company whose founders created the folding wheelchair were the first to manufacture the electric wheelchair on a mass scale beginning in 1956.
John Donoghue and Braingate invented a new wheelchair technology intended for a patient with very limited mobility, who otherwise would have issues using a wheelchair by themselves.
The BrainGate device is implanted into the patient’s brain and hooked to a computer to which the patient can send mental commands that results in any machine including wheelchairs doing what they want it to. The new technology is called BCI or brain-computer interface.