You may be surprised to hear that the invention of the wheelchair dates all the way back to 1595, where King Phillip II of Spain was wheeled around by his servants in what was then known as an ‘invalid’s chair’, which featured small wheels attached to the legs and a platform for Phillip’s legs to rest on.
However, there are ancient records depicting wheeled furniture which date back much earlier than this. A carving on a stone slate found in China shows a chair with wheels and an image on a vase found in Greece portrays something similar. Both are estimated to be from between the 6th and 5th century B.C. and are the earliest known records of wheeled furniture.
The technology really started to advance following the invention of King Phillip’s quite primitive version of the wheelchair. The main flaw with the design of Phillip’s chair was that it had no method of propulsion, meaning it was useless without assistance from somebody else. The first self-propelling chair was invented by 22-year-old paraplegic Stephan Farffler, who built a three-wheeled chair which was operated by hand cranks and a network of gears, cranks, and cogs in 1655. Farffler’s chair resembled more of a handbike than a wheelchair, but was a huge step in progressing closer to what we have today. Many similar mechanical chairs were built around this time, but were primarily used as a means of transportation by the wealthy. It wasn’t until the 18th century when wheelchairs began to be advertised as modes of transport for patients in various medical catalogues.
John Dawson was the next to make a significant advancement in the field with the Bath Wheelchair, named after his hometown of Bath, England. His chair, invented in 1783, had a small wheel at the front and two larger wheels at the back. It could be steered by the user with a long protruding handle, but, due to the weight of the design, had to be pulled by a horse or donkey. Dawson’s invention was the first to bring the wheelchair into common use by the general population, and was largely successful. His wheelchair outsold all others throughout the rest of the 1700s and into the early 1800s.
Next time we will take a look at the advancements made during the 19th century, which was when the wheelchair really began to evolve into what we know today.