Rolling Over the History of Wheelchairs
Wheelchairs and ramps are vital pieces of equipment for those with severely reduced mobility. They provide a method to access the home and the wider environment for people whose physical condition means they are unable to walk.
The history of wheelchairs is a long one. While it’s impossible with any degree of certainty to pinpoint when the first wheelchairs were used, there are some known historical landmarks which give us indications of their earliest appearances.
Wheelbarrows in China
The wooden wheelbarrow is documented to have been invented in China around the first Century AD. While it’s plethora of goods-transporting properties would have been its likely day-today role, it’s obviously practicality for transporting a person would not have gone unnoticed.
While not necessarily a ‘chair’ in the strictest sense, the wooden wheelbarrow could easily have supported a person for a ride, albeit a bumpty one!
There is in fact evidence that the Chinese used wheelbarrows to transport disabled or injured people in the shape of an engraved image dated AD 525.
Philip II Spain’s wheelchair
Documentary or pictorial evidence of wheelchair use is then absent for over 1500 years that followed, until a sketch of Philip II of Spain in 1595. It depicts the king seated in a chair which appears to have small wheels.
The image also shows a resting platform for the king’s legs and what looks like an adjustable backrest. At the time, documents describe it as an ‘invalid’s chair’.
Steven Farfler’s self-propelled ‘wheelchair’
While Philip II’s chair was self-evidently propelled by a servant, documented proof of the first wheelchair which could be described as ‘self-propelled’ - powered by its occupant - would come around some 80 years later
At just 22 years of age, English watchmaker Steven Farlfer came up with an innovative box-like design which used arm power for its propulsion.
Farfler, who was himself without the use of his legs, produced what drawn images suggest was a stable chassis with three wheels.
The front wheel had protruding handles at its axel, allowing the user to lean forwards and rotate them - in doing so turning the front wheel and propelling the contraption forwards.
The ‘Bath Chair’
The spa waters of English city of Bath enticed many disabled travellers in the 17th and 18th Centuries who believed its waters had therapeutic effects.
And it was here that in 1783, John Dawson invented a mobility chair which he eventually named after his hometown. Indeed, the appearance of this chair is perhaps the first which has visual ancestry with modern wheelchairs.
The ‘Bath Chair’ had two small wheels at the front and two much larger rear wheels, in some ways similar to today’s self-propelled wheelchairs.
The chair could also be mounted on four wheels and pulled by a horse, a donkey or even a dog. Other versions could be pushed by an attendant in the conventional way.
Some Bath Chairs had wooden levers acting as steering mechanisms which could be controlled by the rider.
While there were other designs of wheelchairs during Dawson’s lifetime, it was his which dominated the market in the first 40 years of the 19th Century.
Versions were produced with hoods and even some with glass windscreen-like front panels.
With solid wooden wheels, one of the characteristics of Dawson’s chairs was that almost all the models were uncomfortable to ride. As things developed, models were produced with footrests and adjustable backrests, but the ride itself remained bumpy.
In the second half of the century, manufacturers aimed to improve the comfort of their products.
Evolution towards the modern wheelchair
A patent was taken out in 1869 for a wheelchair which was in many ways foreshadowed modern versions seen across the world today.
The patented wheelchair again had the large rear and small front wheels, the difference being that now the rear wheels were intended to allow the user to propel them without assistance.
In their first incarnations, this came with drawbacks. For one, there was no second rim to allow the user to grip and push. Instead the user would push the wheel itself, meaning it could be a muddy business, depending on the weather!
Engineers soon realised a way around this problem was to fit a second ‘pushing rim’ with a smaller circumference, to sit outside the existing wheel.
This meant the user could propel the wheel with the arms and hands without having to grip the same rotating surfaces that contacted the ground.
During the great and widespread period of technological innovation through the 19th and 20th Centuries, various design tweaks and innovations were introduced.
Wheelchairs became less bulky and there was a greater emphasis on comfort.
One of the chief issues with wheelchairs has always been their rather awkward size and shape. This makes them intuitively difficult to transport or efficiently store.
There was therefore a motivation to solve this problem. The idea of a folding wheelchair was the brainchild of American engineer Harry Jennings in 1932.
His design of metal tubed frame which could fold down to a much smaller width when not in use, is fundamentally unchanged to this day.
Jennings came up with the ideal for his friend Herber Everest, who was himself disabled and needed a wheelchair which he could transport by another new invention, the motor car.
The ability of a wheelchair to fold down so that it will fit easily into the boot of a car remains one of the most important factors in chair design today.
Jennings’ ‘x-brace’ mechanism is still commonly found both in wheelchairs and children’s pushchairs.
While the start of the 20th Century saw improvements to the design of wheelchairs to make them more comfortable, it was in 1916 when UK engineers first saw the potential to make ‘automatic’ models.
Their initial ‘motorised’ chairs never found much commercial success and it wasn’t until after the second world war that the first electricity powered wheelchairs were invented.
The high number of parapletic war veterans generated demand and inspired the notable Canadian engineer George Klein to invent the electric wheelchair.
Klein had a diverse impact on emerging technologies - as well as his work on electric wheelchairs, he also invented the first microsurgical staple gun and had a hand in the development of nuclear reactors.
The aforementioned Jennings and Everest got in on the act and in 1956, becoming the first to mass produce an electric wheelchair.
Ramps for wheelchair users in the UK
Ramps have been used since time immemorial as ancient builders slid and later wheeled materials to where they were needed. They would, for example, have played a large role in the construction of the Egyptian pyramids and Stonehenge in the west of England.
Modern wheelchair ramps, whether for use in a public or domestic setting, have developed alongside wheelchairs themselves as they have gained wider usage through the centuries.
Following World War II the importance of accessibility was widely recognised, with a significant number of war casualties being confined to a wheelchair.
From 1950 there was growing advocacy for greater accessibility in public areas and since then it has lead to laws preventing impaired access leading to discrimination against disabled people.
After the Disability Discrimination Act of 1995, laws are now in place to ensure public buildings are accessible to wheelchair users.
In 1999 UK companies were told they needed to make changes to ensure wheeled access, and then in 2004 to adapt the physical characteristics of their property to accommodate wheelchairs.
Folding wheelchair ramps and other portable models have become fundamental accessories for many wheelchair users.
Available in various sizes, modern versions are lightweight and easy to transport in the boot of a car.
Most ramps for wheelchair users tend to be made of aluminium. This is because of its low weight, high rigidity and non-corrosive nature.
For portable ramps, it has largely replaced steel as a construction material. The steel ramps used in the mid to late part of the 20th Century were strong and reliable, but also heavy and prone to rust.
Fibreglass and strong plastics are still popular for small wedge-type ramps around the home. They’re excellent for bridging doorway thresholds, for example.
Folding wheelchair ramps, or ‘suitcase ramps’ usually fold down the centre and lock out flat when in use. Many models have a carry handle mounted in the middle, leading to the ‘suitcase-like’ appearance.
Also supplied by Essential Aids are ‘channel ramps’. These are another form of portable ramp and as the name suggests, come in pairs of aluminium ‘channels’.
These are particularly good for wheeling chairs and even mobility scooters onto large vehicles or in situations where it’s imperative that the wheels do not slip off to the side.
The channels typically have high lips to each side, guiding the wheels and ensuring there’s no possibility of them falling off as they roll.
One advantage of this style of ramps is that they tend to be telescopic and reduce down to at least half their extended length for storage or transportation. This makes them excellent alternatives to folding wheelchair ramps.