The History of the Wheelchair

Some of you may have noticed the “old school” wheelchair I have next to my office (big wheels in front, large casters in back and wicker seat). I always wanted an old chair – just to remind me how difficult things used to be for some. In order to better judge the age of the chair, I started researching the history and progression of the wheelchair. Here are some interesting facts that I discovered.

Wheelchairs seem to have been around for over 1400 years. Historians believe that human ingenuity most likely designed the first wheelchair in ancient Greek and Roman Times. The first visual documentation of a wheelchair is on the sarcophagus (casket) of a rich merchant. This dated back to around 500 A.D. – suddenly my idea to be buried in my chair doesn’t seem so crazy. Another documentation dates back to 1600 when an artist drew King Phillip II of Spain sitting in his “wheelchair”. Later King Louis XIV of France used a “roulette” to move about while recovering from an operation. In 1783 John Dawson of Bath, England invented a chair with two large wheels in the front and one smaller/center wheel in the back. This was the most popular design throughout the early part of the 19th century. A patent in 1869 showed a design of big wheels in back and two smaller wheels in the front (this design wouldn’t become popular for another 100 years). From 1867 to 1881 patents were filed with hollow rubber wheels, metal rims and finally for self-propulsion push-rims. By 1894 the first manual wheelchair patent design that we know today was registered in the United States. In 1932 Herbert Everest, a paraplegic from a coal mining accident and  Harold Jennings, a mechanical engineer,  teamed up to produce the first folding wheelchair design that is still used in hospitals today – Everest & Jennings. E&J revolutionized the wheelchair design by using lighter metals and wicker that made the chair easier to produce and self propel. Since the Everest & Jennings design there have been a number of changes and transformations from folding “X” frame chairs to the rigid, light weight popular manual chairs to date.

On June 24th of this year, I will celebrate 32 years of using a wheelchair. I am amazed how my chair has become such an extension of my body. I realized this even more last year when I was in the hospital. My first night while I slept, one of the staff members moved my wheelchair from my bedside to the other side of the room. When I awoke, I realized how uncomfortable and anxious I felt not having my chair close to me.  After negotiating with hospital staff and convincing them I would not get out of bed, they kept my chair close to me for the remainder of my stay. My wheels have become my legs and I would have never thought to thank a rich man from China, a few Kings, an injured coal miner, a disabled U.S. President and a lot of wheelchair athletes that helped to advance the engineering and design of my new legs.

By: Jason Roberts, Mobility Specialist for ADA


Posted on February 3, 2012 by Katie Larson