History Of The Wheelchair

The first known image of a wheelchair was carved into a stone in the 6th century.

King Philip II, who was the King of Spain during the 16th century, used a very elaborate wheelchair that had both armrests and leg rests.

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In the 18th century the first wheelchair similar in design to those available today was developed. It had large front wheels and a single wheel in back. By the 19th and 20th century wheelchairs were constructed of wood and wicker design. A US patent was issued for this design in 1894 and they were used by veterans of the Civil War and the First World War.

The Bath Wheelchair

In 1783, John Dawson of Bath, England, invented a wheelchair named after the town of Bath. Dawson designed a chair with two large wheels and one small one. The Bath wheelchair outsold all other wheelchairs throughout the early part of the 19th century.


Bath Chair 1840
This is a typical Bath Chair which was available for hire.
They brought the sick to take the waters at the Pump Room or to bathe in the Baths.
The chair was invented by James Heath
of Bath around 1750. It gained in popularity and by 1830 had replaced the sedan chair as a conventional means
of transport



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1880s Bath Chair still in close to Original condition found in Napier New Zealand

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Another style of an early  Bath chair.


Below:   Bath chairs outside the Pump room around 1912




Late 1800s

However, the Bath wheelchair was not that comfortable and during the last half of the 19th century many improvements were made to wheelchairs. An 1869 patent for a wheelchair showed the first model with rear push wheels and small front casters. Between, 1867 to 1875, inventors added new hollow rubber wheels similar to those used on bicycles on metal rims. In 1881, the pushrims for added self-propulsion were invented






The 1900s

In 1900, the first spoked wheels were used on wheelchairs. In 1916, the first motorized wheelchair was manufactured in London


 Below:             New Zealand made wheelchair

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Another New Zealand made wheelchair

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Number 603

Made by 

W.A.Thompson & Co Ltd

Auckland New Zealand

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The Folding Wheelchair

In 1932, engineer, Harry Jennings, built the first folding, tubular steel wheelchair. That was the earliest wheelchair similar to what is in modern use today. That wheelchair was built for a paraplegic friend of Jennings called Herbert Everest. Together they founded Everest & Jennings, a company that monopolized the wheelchair market for many years. An antitrust suit was actually brought against Everest & Jennings by the Department of Justice, who charged the company with rigging wheelchair prices. The case was finally settled out of court.

After the invention of the motorized wheelchair, many more advancements were made. Manual wheelchairs became much lighter and maneuverable. Many athletes who were mobility challenged pushed for more athletic models and there were many advances in the technology that was behind the motorized wheelchair.



An early folding wheelchair





Electric Wheelchair

Moves towards the first power wheelchair were being made during the early 20th century.

The first motorized powerchair seems to have been made in 1912, when a 1 ¾ horse power engine was added to an invalids tricycle.



And when George Westinghouse, American entrepreneur and inventor who was one of the pioneers of the electrical system and received 361 patents in his lifetime, died, drawings and designs of an electrical wheelchair were found close at hand.



Probably the first power chair to be developed commercially was a motorized wheelchair in 1916 (also mentioned in our history of the wheelchair). This actually went into commercial production, although the expense meant that most of the disabled of the time stayed in manual wheelchairs.



Although not the first motorized power wheelchair, the Canadian’s contribution, itself a reaction to the large number of invalids in its hospitals after the second world war, was groundbreaking.



George Klein is credited with initiating the design of this motorized wheelchair, but this was a team effort, involving not just engineers but patients who explained their needs and challenges to the doctors and provided the materials.



Just to add confusion to who invented the first powered wheelchair, credit is still often given to Earnest and Jennings for the invention of the power wheelchair. They were probably the first to manufacture the power wheelchair on any scale, with mass production of their motorized wheelchair beginning in 1956.



However, they were also extremely basic. The E & J 840 had no circuit board, and only two speeds: high and low. In fact, to change between the speeds your first had to halt the wheelchair. The movement was also very jerky, in part due to the extremely basic steering – a joystick that had to touch one of four on-off levers to give direction.



Needless to say, it was still a marvel to its first users.



Unfortunately, it was the failure to substantially develop wheelchairs like this that lead to the downfall of Ernest and Jennings, from the dominating player in the wheelchair world to the small bit player it is now. However, other more innovative and aggressive companies came up with newer models – in particular the sleek Quickie power chairs that made the Ernest and Jennings models of the time look positively prehistoric in comparison



1963 Wrigley Electric chair

Possibly the UK's oldest known production powered outdoor chair.