Wheelchair history offers an interesting look into the evolution of mobility chairs and provides a sense of appreciation for the variety of wheelchair choices and performance capabilities available today. While no one knows when the first wheelchair was invented, it is likely that people with physical disabilities have been using some type of wheeled chair since before Christ was born.
The wheel and the chair were both invented around 4,000 B.C. in the Mediterranean area. Scholars believe that early inventors put the two together to create a moveable device. The first record of wheels on furniture dates back to China at around 1300 B.C. Other records indicate such devices were found in Greece around 525 B.C.
For much of history, only wealthy nobility could afford a chair made especially for them. The impoverished classes tended to rely on carts or other wheeled devices. Around 300 A.D., folks used wheelbarrows or similar contraptions to move injured, ill, or permanently disabled people.
Wheelchair history is rather limited and scholars can only speculate as to how disabled and injured people moved around in the early centuries. However, they do know that in 1595, the king of Spain, Philip II, used a chair with wheels on it. The chair is among the first known to have had footrests, making in an early precursor of the wheelchair we know today. Servants pushed the chair.
Wheelchairs were not mass-produced until the 19th and 20th centuries, so people were on their own to come up with methods for getting around. For example, in 1625, a watchmaker named Stephen Farfler, who was a paraplegic, invented a self-propelled chair. The chair looked rather like a racecar. The watchmaker used his hands to turn a crank to make the device move forward.
In 1783, John Dawson invented a wheelchair known as the Bath chair, named after Bath, England. The chair consisted of two large wheels at the rear and a small wheel at the front. This chair was widely used in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In the 1860s and 1870s, manufacturers began using iron wheels instead of wooden wheels. By the late 1800s, they were using hollow rubber.
In 1894, the first wheelchair patent in the United States was registered. Around this time, wheelchair users and manufacturers began looking at issues such as comfort and propulsion. They added features such as adjustable footrests and backrests.
Self-propelled wheelchairs took many forms during this time. Some looked like tricycles with crank axles.
In 1900, wheelchairs began to sport spoke wheels. In 1912, a small engine was added to a tricycle-type wheelchair to create the first motorized unit.
Some early power chairs used a drive train with a chain or belt. These chairs required much maintenance and were not reliable. Today's wheelchairs are powered with direct drive, which uses a motor instead of a belt or chain to turn the gears.
Wheelchair history indicates that early chairs were made of wood. The chairs were heavy up until the 1930s, when manufacturers began using lightweight tubing. Most people could not move the early wheelchairs by themselves and so users had to be pushed. The chairs were also difficult to maneuver, hard to store, and uncomfortable.
Herbert A. Everest in 1933 invented the forerunner of the lightweight, portable wheelchair that is found today in hospitals. These were the first folding metal wheelchairs. They were created so that wheelchairs could go into automobiles.
Wheelchair sports, which became a popular form of therapy for disabled people in the 1950s, also brought about changes in wheelchairs. The first games were held in England in 1952, and the first Paralympics were held in Tokyo, Japan, in 1964.
Since then, the last 40 years have seen many changes in the evolution of the wheelchair. The need for speed and handling in wheelchair sports has led to many of the improvements now enjoyed by millions of wheelchair users today. Those improvements include better stability and construction, lightweight materials, and versatility. The chairs are much more comfortable, too.
Most chairs today take advantage of technology and microprocessors and give users greater control over their mobility. The wheelchair has undergone many changes during humanity's time on earth.
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