The World Health Organisation considers wheelchairs to be a basic human right for people with limited mobility. Today, wheelchairs and related wheelchair facilities are making the world an increasingly accessible place for millions, while pioneering technological developments such as sports wheelchairs allow people with disabilities to participate in an ever-growing range of activities.
However, the widespread usage of wheelchairs is only a recent global development. Though there is evidence of their existence as long ago as the 6th century, it wasn’t until the last few hundred years that wheelchairs shifted from being a privilege of the rich to a more widely accessible device.
So, when was the first wheelchair invented, and how did its design develop over time?
There is evidence of wheelchair use in the 6th century BC
Dating between the 6th and 5th centuries BC, an inscription found on a stone slate in China and a child’s bed depicted on a frieze on a Greek vase are the earliest records of wheeled seats. In China, three centuries later, the first records of wheeled seats being used to transport those with disabilities occurred.
There is also evidence that wheelbarrows were used to transport both people and heavy objects; indeed, a distinction between these two functions was not made until about 525 AD, when images of wheeled chairs specifically designed to transport people began to appear in Chinese art.
King Philip II of Spain used one
The best-documented early example of a wheelchair belonged to King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) in 1595. In the years before his death, Philip suffered from severe gout which made walking difficult. An unknown Spanish inventor built an elaborate wheelchair, called the ‘invalid’s chair’, which was complete with lavish upholstery, arm and leg rests, an adjustable backrest and four small wheels that allowed the king to be pushed around by a servant.
However, though the device was a chair on wheels, it’s more accurate to compare it to a modern-day highchair or portable throne for the wealthy.
A German watchmaker made the first self-propelling wheelchair
In 1655, a 22-year-old German paraplegic watchmaker called Stephan Farffler utilised his knowledge of cogs and wheels to build the world’s first self-propelling chair. It had three wheels and allowed the user to turn handles which in turn were attached to chains around the wheels, thus propelling the chair forwards.
However, the device still resembled a hand bike more than a wheelchair, and has even been speculated to be a precursor to the modern-day tricycle and bicycle.
‘Bath chairs’ emerged in the 18th century
In around 1750, James Heath from Bath, England, invented a wheelchair and named it after his town. It featured two large wheels in the back and one small one in the front and could be steered by the user by using a stiff handle. It was particularly popular because of Bath’s increasing popularity as a spa town; wheelchair users could be taken down to the Roman Baths for treatment.
The chair only required one person to push it, and if needed, it could also be mounted on four wheels and drawn by a horse, pony or donkey. John Dawson’s 1783 ‘Bath Chair’ outsold all other chair designs for 40 years, since it was reportedly more comfortable and nimble than other models. In the 19th century, bath chairs were increasingly seen at spa resorts such as Buxton and Tunbridge Wells.
By the 1800s, wheelchairs were becoming lighter and started to appear more like the ones we know today. In 1887, ‘rolling chairs’ were introduced to Atlantic City for tourists with disabilities to rent so they could enjoy the Boardwalk. Rolling chairs also became popular among those who didn’t need a wheelchair as a show of decadence and wealth.
‘X-frame’ wheelchairs transformed wheelchair use
In 1869, a patent was taken out for a wheelchair that had large wheels at the back and could be self-propelled. It was only in 1932 that engineer Harry Jennings invented the folding ‘X-frame’ tubular steel version for his friend, Herbert Everest, who had become paraplegic in a mining accident.
Together, they founded the Everest and Jennings company, which outsold all other wheelchair companies for decades. Their model is still recognised as a key precursor to current, 21st-century designs.
Today, wheelchairs are increasingly sophisticated
Great strides have been made in the development of better technology for wheelchairs, with lighter materials like aluminium and titanium increasingly their portability, and sports wheelchairs highlighting the role of personal ambition as a driver for technological advancements.
Today, highly sophisticated wheelchairs that can ‘walk’ up and down stairs and travel across surfaces such as sand and gravel have been developed, and it is theorised that in the future, wheelchairs will be able to be controlled by neurological impulses from the brain.