History of Wheelchairs

Antique Wheelchairs

The earliest known record on the history of wheelchairs dates back to the 6th century with an inscription on a stone slate in China.

During the German Renaissance a wheelchair was invented for King Phillip II of Spain in 1595 by an unknown inventor. It was an elaborate chair with both armrests and leg rests. Although it had wheels he needed assistance to propel it and it resembled more of a modern day highchair than what we know as wheelchairs of today.

In 1665 the first self-propelled wheelchair was invented by Stephan Farfler, a 22 year old paraplegic watchmaker. It looked more like a hand bike than a wheelchair, built on a three wheel chassis as it had hand cranks attached to the front wheel.

Bath Wheelchair

James Heath, of Bath, invented a chair around 1750. These wheelchairs for hire brought the sick to take the waters at the Pump Room or to bathe in the Baths.

In 1783, John Dawson, a wheelchair maker, of Bath, England, also invented a wheelchair named after the town of Bath. Dawson designed a chair with two large wheels and one small one. Although this antique wheelchair was originally intended for basic mobility, the idea found a modern day place in the hand cycle for athletes. The Bath wheelchair gained in popularity and by 1830 had replaced the sedan wheelchair as the favored means of transportation.

The 1800s

During the last half of the century the history of wheelchairs records indicate many improvements were made as the Bath wheelchair was not that comfortable. The early convertible chair had a reclining back and adjustable foot rests. It was constructed of wood and wicker.

The lightweight antique wheelchair was made from Indian reed and had large wheels on the front or back, and weighed 50 pounds without the push rims or 58 pounds with push rims.

A patent recorded in 1869 is for a wheelchair with rear push wheels and small front casters. Between 1867 and 1875 inventors added new hollow rubber wheels similar to those used on bicycles on metal rims. In 1881 push rims were invented. In 1894 a US patent was issued and these antique wheelchairs were used by veterans of the Civil War and the First World War.

The Early 1900s

In 1900 the history of wheelchairs records the first spoke wheels being used. In 1912 the first motorized power chair had a 1 and ¾ horsepower motor on an “invalids tricycle”. In 1916, the first motorized wheelchair to go into production was manufactured in London.

George Klein is credited with the initial design of the power chair even though this was a team effort by engineers and patients who explained what their needs were to the doctors and he provided the materials. Credit is often given to Everst and Jennings as they were probably the first to manufacture the power wheelchair on any scale.

These antique wheelchairs were very basic. The E&J 840 had no circuit board and only two speeds: low and high. To change speeds you had to stop the wheelchair. The jerky movement was in part due to the basic steering of a joystick that had to make contact with one of the four on/off levers for direction. Today it would be considered an antique wheelchair, however, at that time it was the latest technology for the first users.

Everst And Jennnings X Frame

In 1932, a mechanical engineer, Harry Jennings, built the first folding, tubular steel wheelchair. That was the earliest model that is similar to what is used today. The wheelchair was built for Herbert Everest, also a mechanical engineer and a paraplegic friend of Jennings.

In 1933 Mr. Everst broke his back in a mining accident. Herbert wanted a wheelchair that could be put in an automobile. Together these friends founded Everst & Jennings, a company that saw the potential of their invention and were able to mass market their well known “X-brace”, which is still in use today.

Canada played a major contribution to the history of wheelchairs in the 1950's. They responded to the need for power wheelchairs as there was a large number of wounded veterans in hospitals after the Second World War.

The Late 1900s

Antique WheelchairsTo Power Wheelchairs

As you know E&J is no longer the only powerhouse in wheelchairs today. More aggressive companies have joined the market with many new models such as the Pride Mobility Jazzy, Sunrise Quickie and Invacare FDX.

Technology has improved with the creation of power wheelchairs operated with a joystick, a head stick or sip and puff devices. Tilt-in-space, elevating and stair climing wheelchairs, sports chairs are some of the vast array of wheelchairs available. The standing wheelchair allows the user to rise from a seated position to a standing position with the use of a hydraulic pump or lever action.

The history of wheelchairs now includes a special chair for your pet. If your beloved pet has difficulty moving there are wheelchairs on the market so that they can maintain an active life as well.


To summarize the history of wheelchairs, it is unclear where or who invented the first wheelchairs as there is limited documentation in several countries. Only recently patents and innovative new solutions have become known around the world. The idea of the antique wheelchair has surpassed the original inventors to soar beyond their wildest dreams. Today many people in wheelchairs can enjoy all that life has to offer from the toddler to the senior citizen.

One can only imagine and the impossible is made possible.

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