When was the first wheelchair invented? It’s unclear who exactly first invented the wheelchair or when. The invention of the chair and the wheel as separate entities also aren’t precisely known. However, we do know that at some point they were combined into something greater than the sum of their parts: the wheelchair.
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 that has ever existed.
Is the first wheelchair from China or Greece?
From what we know, wheelchairs may have 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.
Perhaps these carts were modes of transport for the wealthy, rather than designs specifically tailored to assisting people with limited mobility. Like rickshaws, still used today, 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.
Watch this video to see the contemporary rickshaw:
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, a rudimentary wheelchair was designed for Philip II of Spain, who suffered from gout. We don’t know who designed this 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.
Germany, 17th century
In 1655, the world’s first self-propelling chair was designed by a 22-year-old watchmaker named Stephan Farffler. 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. These were the first commercial wheelchairs and could be hired to transport visitors 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. Anyone could hire them, and people without disabilities started hiring them too.
Hayday’s designs were a step in the right direction, but nevertheless, hardly resembled 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 designing from a real practical standpoint.
Together, they invented the first folding wheelchair, which was portable and lightweight.
We say thanks for the first wheelchair invented
It seems we have many people to thank for the first wheelchair invented. Blue Badge Insurance would like to applaud 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!
And for you the reader, here are some great wheelchair resources:
- Blue Badge Insurance wheelchair guide
- How to clean a wheelchair
- Wheelchair travel blogs
- Visiting the beach with a wheelchair
- Aussie wheelchair users who are changing our culture
- Making the NZ travel bubble fully accessible
- 6 questions to ask when getting insurance for your wheelchair
Wheelchair insurance in Australia
Blue Badge Insurance offers affordable wheelchair insurance for your mobility equipment. That means you can rest assured if your wheelchair is damaged, lost or stolen because 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!