When Was the First Wheelchair Invented?

Black wheelchair in front of a white background.

When was the first wheelchair invented? Good question.. It’s actually unclear who invented the wheelchair and when. The invention of the chair and the wheel as separate entities also aren’t precisely known.

However, we do know that it’s been a gradual process. And at some point the wheel and the chair were combined into something greater than the sum of their parts: the wheelchair.

Read on for a fascinating look into this uber-important piece of equipment.

The wheelchair has been through many changes over the years. From wood to metal, from heavy to lightweight, and from clunky to foldable. Not to mention the revolutionary transition from manual to electric.

Over the course of time, it’s become more manoeuvrable, more ergonomic and more accessible for widespread use. Now if only all the buildings, parks and pavements could follow suit!

We also know that of all the wheelchairs in all of history, the best designs ever made are the ones today. Thanks to all the inventors throughout history, we now have access to some of the best mobility equipment on record.

An early wheelchair, which like the first wheelchair is made of wood.
Wheelchair made for Holy Roman Empress Elisabeth Christine of Brunswick. Wolfenbüttel, 1740.

Is the first wheelchair invented from China or Greece?

From what we know, wheelchairs may’ve already existed in the period between the 6th and 5th centuries BC. A stone carving from China and another from Greece dating back to then both depict wheeled furniture. So, there’s some debate from people as to whether wheelchairs were invented in Greece or China.

Perhaps these carts were modes of transport for the wealthy, rather than designs specifically tailored to assisting people with limited mobility. Just like rickshaws, still used today, that are to cart tourists around scenic holiday spots in parts of Asia and South Africa.

In China, before the wheelchair existed, wheelbarrows were used to move people around. Perhaps these were eventually modified for personal use as wheelchairs. Wheelbarrows are also pushed from behind, when necessary, like some manual wheelchairs, unlike rickshaws that are pulled from the front.

First wheelchair designs

Gradually, over thousands of years, the first wheelchairs began to emerge as purpose-designed disability mobility aids. Over time, designs were tweaked and changed for improved control and propulsion.

Here’s what this evolution looked like:

China, 500 AD

In China, the wheelchair started to emerge as a distinct design in artistic impressions around 500 AD.

Spain, 16th century

At the start of the 16th century, Philip II of Spain, who suffered from gout, had a rudimentary wheelchair designed for him. We don’t know who designed this wheelchair chair, but it was still very clunky and could only be moved if pushed from behind. It’s been likened to a portable throne without an efficient propulsion mechanism. And for everyday people, a throne isn’t much use!

Germany, 17th century

In 1655, a 22-year-old watchmaker named Stephan Farffler designed the world’s first self-propelling chair. Farffler was a paraplegic, having broken his back as a child. His design had three wheels and hand cranks connected to cogs, similar to a bicycle.

England, 18th century

One of the most pivotal moments in the history of the wheelchair is the Bath chair from the city of Bath. Bath is built around natural thermal hot springs that flowed into Roman built baths. The healing properties of these mineral-rich spring waters made Bath an attractive spa town.

People from across Europe would visit to heal and recover and to experience the wealth of literature and art. Many of the visitors were sick or disabled, which led to the development of several new wheelchairs. Not to mention, these were the first commercial wheelchairs and visitors could hire them as transport to and from the spa.

The best-known design is John Dawson’s 1783 ‘Bath Chair’, which he named after the city of Bath. It was a chaise with two large back wheels that connected to a small pivoting front wheel. It also had a foldable hood to shield the occupant from sun and rain.

To this day the thermal spa of Bath continues to be a tourist attraction. Watch this video to see what it looks like today:

America, 19th century

In 1887, William Hayday designed commercial modified wooden “rolling chairs” in Atlantic City. Hayday designed these so people with disabilities could enjoy the sea breeze along the boardwalk. Eventually anyone could hire them, and people without disabilities started hiring them too.

Hayday’s designs were a step in the right direction, but they hardly looked like the modern wheelchair we know today.

The modern wheelchair

Also in America, two friends teamed up to design the first modern wheelchair in 1933.

Herbert Everest and Harry C. Jennings, Sr. were mechanical engineers. They had the knowledge to design a wheelchair capable of becoming a commercial enterprise. Herbert Everest had broken his back during a mining accident, which meant these guys were no-question designing from a practical point of view.

Together, they invented the first folding wheelchair, which was portable and lightweight.

So there you have. And who knows, maybe one day we’ll move past wheelchairs. Perhaps the exoskeleton suit is the next evolution or perhaps it’s he invention of business magnate and investor Elon Musk – Neuralink?

A man sits on a wheelchair holding a ball.

According to Musk, Neuralink’s implantable device works like a Fitbit in your skull. With the use of super-thin threads carrying electrodes, the technology design enables high-speed communication between external computers and, potentially, secondary “links” in the body.

Forbes reports that the goal of Neuralink would be to “solve important brain and spine problems.”

As a matter of fact, Neuralink was cited as potentially treating several chronic and life-limiting conditions – including blindness, spinal cord injuries, memory loss, brain damage, and even depression.

Learn more about Neuralink here:

We say thanks for the first wheelchair invented

All things considered, we have many people to thank for the first wheelchair invented. Blue Badge Insurance applauds all the inventors who created different versions. It’s because of these people who met the need for mobility equipment that we have the modern wheelchair.

Thank you also to the modern wheelchair designers who’ve given us motorised wheelchairs, sports wheelchairs and all-terrain wheelchairs! Wheelchair advancements have come on in leaps and bounds over the years. Which has allowed people with disability to live a more independent life.

We’re guessing you’ll want to know more about wheelchairs now you know more about when the first wheelchair was invented. Luckily, we’re experts on everything wheelchair.

Here are some great wheelchair resources:

  1. Blue Badge Insurance wheelchair guide
  2. Alternatives to NDIS for funding a wheelchair
  3. All about stand up wheelchairs
  4. Occupational therapy for wheelchair scripting
  5. How to clean a wheelchair
  6. Wheelchair travel blogs
  7. Visiting the beach with a wheelchair
  8. Aussie wheelchair users who are changing our culture
  9. 6 questions to ask when getting insurance for your wheelchair
  10. Christmas Gifts for Wheelchair and Scooter Users

Wheelchair insurance in Australia

Blue Badge Insurance offers affordable wheelchair insurance for your mobility equipment. You can rest assured that if you damage or lose your wheelchair, or it’s stolen, we’ll help cover the bills for repair or replacement.

The first wheelchair invented may not have needed our insurance. But it’s a great idea for modern day electric ones! Plus, if you have a disability parking permit, you could also get a whopping big discount on your car insurance premiums. Read about our disability car insurance too.

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