Tracing The History of Electric Wheelchairs: How Far We Have Come

The ubiquitous wheelchair has been around since the 16th century, and much of its time has remained almost the same.

The only thing that saw a bit of change was the better seats and wheels that evolved naturally as we started to work with better materials.

Electric wheelchairs were a more recent invention from the 1940s, which used an electric motor to allow the person sitting to drive the wheelchair themselves.

This simple-to-understand piece of technology has only been evolving for the past few decades, and as computers are now almost everywhere, we have smart wheelchairs.

This article traces the origin of the wheelchair from history to the present and will also look on to the future to know what it holds for electric mobility.

While the idea of a wheelchair was seen as early as the 5th century, today’s modern foldable wheelchair and electric wheelchair were developed in the 20th century.

This article talks about the albeit brief history of the humble wheelchair and looks into the future to see what it holds.

The Technology Behind the Wheelchair

The wheelchair is designed to be as simple as possible so that anyone can use it, and it can easily be fixed and maintained.

The wheels are usually made out of plastic or rubber with a metal rim, and four of them can support a fully grown adult very well.

Depending on where the chair is used, the materials used to build it will differ.

For wheelchairs in hospitals that usually only carry people for a few minutes, the material used is utilitarian mainly and is way cheaper to make.

But personal wheelchairs that people use always have better-cushioned seats, sturdy wheels, and a good frame to allow them to be used all the time.

These wheelchairs usually have many extra features like letting the person sitting in the chair move them and other smart features.

As a result, the tech that a wheelchair uses greatly depends on where it is used in most cases.

Wheelchairs vs Prosthetics

Wheelchairs and prostheses allow people who lose mobility in their limbs in different ways.

The former allows the person to move around and is only used for people who have difficulty walking.

On the other hand, prostheses exist for hands and legs to assist people in getting back at least some of their lost mobility with the help of a user-controllable limb.

Prostheses require a thorough understanding of each patient and are usually custom-made to order.

As a result, these are more expensive but offer a lot more than wheelchairs.

Wheelchairs are usually used for people who have temporarily lost function of their legs and people who don’t want to spend a lot of money on prosthetics.

Early History of Wheeled Furniture

The earliest known record of wheeled furniture was found in China and Greece around the 5th or 6th century BC.

Evidence of wheeled furniture being used to carry disabled people was seen from a specimen dated three centuries later from the earlier example.

In Europe, the first time a wheelchair was used for transporting people was in 1595 when an unknown Spanish inventor built a wheelchair for King Philip II.

This model required someone to move it, and the design was looked more like a throne than a wheelchair.

Stephan Farffler’s Hand-Cranked Wheelchair

Credit to designing the world’s first self-propelled wheelchair went to Stephan Farffler, a disabled watchmaker who made a wheelchair that the user could move by themselves.

It allowed the person to “drive” the wheelchair with a set of cogs and cranks and looked more like a bike because it had its controls in the front of the chair.

He intended to make this wheelchair for his personal use, so it didn’t garner mainstream attention.

The Dawson Commercial Wheelchair

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Farffler’s wheelchair was just an early prototype, and the Bath Chair brought them to the mainstream in the late 18th century.

The Bath Chair was designed and built by John Dawson from Bath, England.

This wheelchair was more customizable than the ones we saw before and had adjustable leg rests and a backrest.

These features made the Bath Chair more popular among the masses and set the wheels in motion for the humble wheelchair.

The design looks familiar with two large wheels in the back, and it could be self-propelled, pushed by someone else or even an animal.

The Bath Chair was expensive, though, but it planted the idea of a chair that could help disabled people move in everyone at that time.

The Modern Folding Wheelchair

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The modern folding wheelchair that we see in hospitals everywhere was just an evolution of what existed before it, and it brought a lot of convenient features that other wheelchairs never thought to have.

Herbert Everest and Harry Jennings designed the new wheelchair from their garage in 1933, creating the foldable design that’s seen everywhere now.

They went on to form the Everest and Jennings Company, and their wheelchairs were popular, leading to them holding a monopoly over the wheelchair market for a few decades.

These wheelchairs need to be moved manually, either by someone pushing on the chair using the handles on the back, or the person sitting in the chair propelling it forward by using the handles on the wheels.

Electric Wheelchairs

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The electric wheelchair was designed with a purpose by George Klein, which was to help disabled veterans returning from the Second World War.

Even though Westinghouse had a few designs, the first electric wheelchair was attributed to Klein.

The Klein chair was big, slow, and ungainly, and as technology progressed, the idea began to evolve and slowly became smaller as time went on.

Stair Climbing Wheelchairs

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The biggest obstacle to any wheelchair is a set of stairs due to the very nature of their design.

Fortunately, some wheelchairs were designed to go up and downstairs, but most compromise on the comfort front.

Since most of these wheelchairs are used by EMS personnel, comfort isn’t a priority.

There are a few stair climbing wheelchairs commercially available and suitable for daily use, but most of them are prohibitively expensive or are very limited production models.

Wheelchair lift systems are always better alternatives to wheelchairs that climb stairs, not just because it’s safer, but it means that you don’t have to transfer wheelchairs every time you use the stairs.

Power Standing Wheelchairs

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Sitting for too long isn’t recommended when you are recovering with the help of a wheelchair, but if there isn’t any way for you to stand up without assistance, a power-standing wheelchair would be a good option.

They let you change your position from sitting to standing or vice versa whenever you need to, and these wheelchairs come custom-made for you to make sure nothing goes wrong.

You will be strapped in with multiple buckles and belts when you need to stand, though, which can be uncomfortable for some people.

But every aspect of wheelchairs like this is powered, and you can adjust your backrest, headrest, side, and hip supports, and you can tilt and recline the chair as you wish.

You can also change the height your feet and legs rest with by adjusting the platforms your legs are sitting on.

All of this is controlled by a specially designed joystick that’s easy to use.

What Does the Future Hold for Electric Wheelchairs?

Keeping in mind how fast technology grows in a short period of time, the potential of your humble wheelchair being more than it ever was isn’t that far from reality.

Researchers have already managed to combine a mind-machine interface with the controls of an electric wheelchair to allow people to control their wheelchair with their minds.

They read your brainwave activity and translate them into instructions for the wheelchair to follow.

Mobility scooters have lots of potential as well, and with AI and machine learning capabilities, people on mobility scooters and wheelchairs can start to go out onto the street.

The AI can automatically detect issues and stop the wheelchair if the person using it fails to react on time.

This is only a sliver of the possibilities for wheelchairs of the future.

Wheelchairs For Sport

Wheelchairs aren’t just for personal use; they also find their place in sports.

Events like the Paralympics and the Wheelchair Basketball World Championship have changed how we look at wheelchairs.

Not only are they fast, but their unique design also lowers the center of gravity so that the players don’t fall over.

This design technique can be used for commercial purposes, and if someone needs to design a wheelchair, that can’t be tipped over easily.

Developments in one aspect of wheelchairs translate well over to other places or situations where wheelchairs are used.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How long have electric wheelchairs existed?

Electric wheelchairs have been around since the early 1910s, with Westinghouse designing an electric-powered wheelchair, but they never made it.

When was the first electric wheelchair made?

The first electric wheelchair was called the Klein chair and was made by George Kline to help veterans from the Second World War.

When was the first metal wheelchair invented?

The first metal foldable wheelchair was invented by Harry Jennings and Herbert Everest in 1933.

What was used before wheelchairs?

Before wheelchairs became popular, you had to rely on your family or your servants to get you around the house.

When was the wheelchair ramp invented?

A ramp is an ancient invention from the time of the Egyptians, but a ramp for wheelchairs was made popular in 1973 after the Rehabilitation Act of the same year was passed.