Who Invented the Wheelchair?

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The first wheelchairs didn't just transport the disabled. They were also good for toting dirt, stone and construction supplies around town.

Nobody likes to be tied down. Disabled or not, we all prefer our lives have a little zoom, zoom, zoom, as they say. So it's no wonder that people have been rigging up ways to make furniture portable since the earliest days of classical civilization. In fact, the first recorded instance of wheeled furniture, a child's bed depicted in a frieze on a Greek vase, dates all the way back to the 6th century B.C.E. However, we don't know exactly how this bed was used or for whom. The first records of wheeled seats being used, for transporting both the firm and disabled, date to three centuries later in China. Here, the Chinese used their newly invented wheelbarrow to move people as well as heavy objects. A distinction between the two functions wasn't apparently made for another several hundred years, around 525 C.E., when images of wheeled chairs made specifically to carry people begin popping up in Chinese art.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Lazy

However obvious it might be to us today, the elderly and disabled weren't always the target audience of wheelchair makers. Instead, these potentially life-changing devices often became a plaything, suited to the lifestyles of the rich and lazy. Turns out, at least one medieval European king had quite a bit in common with George Costanza. Although primarily known for getting rejected by Queen Elizabeth I and retorting with the Spanish Armada, Philip II of Spain is also remarkable for using a "rolling chair" around 1595. Essentially an elaborate, portable throne, the chair was made of wood, leather, and iron and included comfy footrests.

Freewheeling Geniuses

Philip's chair was designed especially for him by a Flemish nobleman, but many advances in the evolution of the wheelchair were actually designed and built by the very people who needed them. In 1655, paraplegic 22-year-old Stephen Farfler built himself what turned out to be more than just your average wheeled chair. A watchmaker by trade, Farfler parlayed his knowledge of cranks and cogwheels into the world's first chair capable of moving under its own power. This invention would have been extremely liberating, finally allowing people like Farfler to go about their day without having arranged for a friend to push them from place to place.

Another major advance in mobility, the folding chair, was also designed by a paraplegic. Herbert Everest was a mining engineer who'd been confined to a wheelchair later in life by an on-the-job accident. In 1933, he teamed up with a mechanical engineer named Harold C. Jennings to design a wheelchair that was lightweight and that could be folded up for easy auto transport. The result of their work was a 50-pound model built of tubular steel, a far cry from the massive wood and wicker monstrosities in use since the Civil War. Built on a collapsible X-shaped frame, the Everest & Jennings chair would become the industry standard for years to come. Better yet, in the 1950s, the two men were responsible for developing the first powered wheelchair. Run by a transistor-based electrical motor, the E & J powered chair was the first to make chairs both motorized and relatively lightweight.

This article was written by Maggie Koerth-Baker and excerpted from the mental_floss book In the Beginning: The Origins of Everything. You can pick up a copy in our store.

February 2, 2009 - 8:50am
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