Developmental stages often turn out to be very different from what we imagine after seeing a product’s latest version. Wheelchair is nothing a sort of exception in this regards. Wheelchairs have gone under great transformations during their long period of development. The first documented history of wheelchair is traced back to 525 AD according to a stone slate engraving found in China. It is believed that some sort of wheelchairs may have been used even before that period.
We are not going into the full history of wheelchairs in this article. This article is meant to introduce you with selected ancestors of the modern day wheelchairs that have a unique place in the developmental history of wheelchairs.
The wheelbarrows were very commonly used during third century in China. Although these wheelbarrows were also used for transporting heavy goods from one place to other but it was also used for carrying humans. Immobile or sick persons were carried in a wheelbarrow mostly to be taken to the “Fountain of Youth”. Some scholars believe that the wheelbarrows were invented in Han Dynasty during the 2nd century. But many other believe it existed much before that. Sangouzhi, one of the reliable historical texts of China credits Prime Minister Zhuge Liang (181-234CE) for the invention of Chinese Wheelbarrow for sick and elderly persons.
Wheeled chair of King Philip II of Spain
This chair is regarded as the base of modern wheelchair. But unfortunately the creator’s name is nowhere mentioned in history. It is the user whose name is attached with the first modern wheelchair. King Philip II (1556–98) was a very influential king of Spain. He not only ruled Spain but also his rule extended to all the continents then known to the Europeans. He was king of Portugal, Naples, Sicily, England and Ireland. He was Duke of Milan and Lord to the seventeen provinces of Netherlands. During his last years the King developed gout, a severe arthritic problem that made walking difficult for him. Someone unknown to history attached wheels to the heavy throne of the king and also attached a comfortable footrest… making the prototype of the first modern wheelchair. Because the wheels were very small, it must have required someone else to push the chair. But then a king wouldn’t have shortage of assistants — would he?
Self-propelling wheelchair of Stephen Farfler
Adding wheels to a chair makes it easier for a person to carry another person to places but the person sitting on it remains dependent. Anxiety to get rid of this dependency encouraged Stephen Farfler, a paraplegic German watchmaker, to invent a self propelling wheelchair for himself. The three-wheeled self-propelling device invented in 1655 is not only an ancestor to wheelchairs but is also seen as a precursor of modern day tricycles and bicycles. Adding a self-propelling feature gave wheelchairs and their users a completely new dimension of independence. Only 22 year old Farfler used his watch making skills to develop a wheelchair for himself.
Bath chair invented by James Heath
This name may compel you to imagine something like modern day bath-chairs but it’s nothing of that sort. In fact Bath chair invented by James Heath has nothing to do with the act of bathing. It is actually termed as Bath chair after the name of the city in which James Heath lived. The structure of the bath-chair resembled modern day pull-rickshaw with its three wheels. It was invented for ladies and sick person to go from one place to other. Someone needed to push the chair from behind and an axle attached to front wheel allowed the person sitting to control the direction.
John Dawson in 1783 made some modifications to make the chair more comfortable but interestingly he also named his design Bath-chair because he too belonged to Bath, England. The new Bath chair had an added feature that allowed it to be pulled by animals like donkey.
Meredith Thring’s stairs climbing wheelchair
Meredith Thring, a British inventor, designed a wheelchair that can be used by a paralyzed person to climb up and down the stairs. It was an electrically powered carriage with four rimless wheels and spokes covered with rubber to avoid slipping and falling. The design was very good but due to some lack of features necessary for a person with disability it did not became a popular product. But, certainly, it provided a good base for designing modern stairs climbing wheelchairs.
Various other designs of wheelchair have been invented or modified but the above mentioned have earned special attention due to their innovative ideas and specialties.