History of Wheelchairs: From Ancient China to the 20th Century

The idea of combining chairs with wheels for people who couldn’t walk goes back to ancient times. In this guide, you’ll learn about the history of wheelchairs. Plus we will also learn about wheelchair users who made history themselves!

old black and white photo of an antique wheelchair

Wheelchairs are a normal part of daily life, and you probably haven’t thought much about how they have evolved over the years. Today, you can find ramps to facilitate wheelchair access in many places and public restroom stalls adapted for wheelchairs. There are also accessibility standards which aim to regulate buildings and business to make sure wheelchairs can be comfortably used in public.

  • But, have you ever wondered when and where wheelchairs were created, and how their use became so widespread?
  • How about who invented the wheelchair?
  • Have wheelchairs always looked similar to the ones we use today?

Let’s take a look at the history of wheelchairs and find out.

Ancient History of the Wheelchair

No one knows exactly when the first wheelchair was created. Although wheels and chairs were early human inventions, many centuries went by without wheelchairs being used.

Greek and Roman doctors prescribed transportation or gestation for several illnesses. This was usually achieved using litters and sedan chairs rather than wheelchairs. These litters or chairs were carried by servants or slaves; wealthy Romans even had numerous litter-bearers. It makes sense that wheelchairs weren’t invented during this period, seeing as ancient roads were rough and irregular. Using a wheelchair over these surfaces would have been uncomfortable, and even dangerous to their occupants.

The first known image of a wheelchair was found a Chinese stone carving that dates back to 600 BC. Another image, depicting a child on a wheeled bed, was found in Greece. This image dates back to around the same time as the stone carving.

Wheelchair Use in the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries

Although it is likely that simple wheelchairs were in use long before then, the first confirmed record we have of a wheelchair being used is in 1595 when King Philip II of Spain was drawn using a wheelchair. Philip’s wheelchair was very elaborate, and it had adjustable arm and leg rests. This early wheelchair wasn’t self-propelled and had to be pushed. This was probably not an issue for the King, who had plenty of servants to assist him. This chair was called an “invalid’s chair” at the time.

The first historical record of a self-propelled wheelchair comes in 1665, when a German watchmaker called Stephan Farffler. Sources disagree on whether Farffler was paraplegic or an amputee; however, it is clear he invented his wheelchair for personal use. This wheelchair resembled a tricycle and it had hand cranks attached to the front wheel. These cranks allowed Farffler to propel the chair without assistance.

The Bath chair with a steering handle
The Bath wheelchair with the steering handle. By Rwendland [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (https://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], from Wikimedia Commons

In 1783, John Dawson, invented a new wheelchair in the town of Bath, England. Bath has long been known for its spring waters. Ever since the Romans populated the area, building their baths in the city, many people have travelled there seeking to restore their health. It was especially popular as a spa city during the XVIII and XIX centuries. It was during this time that Dawson, known by then a wheelchair maker, developed his wheelchair.

This new invention had two large back wheels and one smaller front wheel. The occupant of the chair could direct the front wheel using a handle which was attached to it, which made it easier for users to steer the chair. The addition of this handle made the chair extremely popular with those who were in poor health and went to Bath hoping to get better. Many variants of this wheelchair were created, some open, some with hoods, and some even with glass fronts. The Bath chair could also be adapted to be pulled by a horse or donkey, or it could be pushed from behind. This wheelchair dominated the wheelchair market for most of the XIX century.

Wheelchairs in the Civil War and 19th Century

Meanwhile, during 1869 in the United States, a patent was granted for a new model of wheelchair. This new model featured large rear push wheels, and smaller front casters. In the following decades, manufacturers added hollow rubber wheels –like the ones used in bicycles- and push rims that made self-propulsion possible. These wheelchairs were widely used during the American Civil War to move wounded or convalescent soldiers. Veterans with chronic injuries also used the wheelchairs after the war ended.

antique wicker and wood wheelchair

These chairs, also known as rolling chairs, became particularly popular in Atlantic City after the Civil War ended. They were available for tourists with disabilities, who rented the chairs in order to be able to explore the Boardwalk. Soon, these elaborately decorated rolling chairs also became popular with healthy tourists, who used them to show off their wealth and opulence.

Towards the end of the 19th century, wheelchairs made with cane and wooden frames were introduced. They featured large wheels on the front or back in a design similar to the ones used today. These wheelchairs, however, were still very heavy and quite uncomfortable. They were mostly meant to be used indoors, limiting their user’s mobility and comfort.

Wheelchair Development in the 20th Century

This changed in the 20th century with two important developments in the history of wheelchair.

Early 20th Century

The invention of the first foldable and portable wheelchair, made from tubular steel, allowed individuals to use their wheelchairs outside of their homes. This design was created by Harry C. Jennings for his friend Herbert Everest.

Some time earlier, Everest had suffered a mining accident which left him with a broken back; this incident was the inspiration for Jennings’ wheelchair. Everest allegedly wanted a wheelchair that could be folded up and placed inside a vehicle. Jennings and Everest are also credited with the “X brace” design which lent greater support to wheelchairs. This feature is still very popular in wheelchairs. After this, wheelchair design focused on creating chairs that were lighter and more durable.

The beginning of the 20th century also saw the creation of the first motorized wheelchair. It was invented in London in 1912, and it featured a 1 and ¾ horsepower motor which was attached to an “invalid’s tricycle”. This model went into production in 1016. However, it was a very expensive model, which meant that most people with disabilities could not afford it. Instead, they kept using their traditional hand-propelled wheelchairs. This made the early motorized wheelchair an unpopular item that wasn’t commercially successful.

antique steel wheelchair from the early 20th century

Mid 20th Century

The introduction of automobiles led to a larger amount of injuries due to accidents. Additionally, medical services and physical rehabilitation improved, which meant that patients that suffered life-threatening accidents were more likely to survive than before. In some cases, this led to chronic disabilities for patients who still strived to achieve independence after their injuries. As a result, the demand for wheelchairs increased in the 20th century.

Especially after World War II, developing motorized wheelchairs that were less expensive and widely available to the numerous war veterans who had suffered injuries became a priority. George Klein, an inventor who worked for the National Research Council of Canada, is credited with designing a groundbreaking power wheelchairs. These wheelchairs were basic and only featured high and low speeds. Their movement was shaky and irregular, and the user had to completely stop the wheelchair before changing to a different speed. These wheelchairs, however, were considered the latest advance in technology at the time and greatly improved the lives of their users.

Late 20th Century

Throughout the 20th century, several other features were added to wheelchairs. This included improving the seating materials and design, which reduced the risk of developing pressure sores. The overall structure and ergonomics of the wheelchairs were also improved to provide better support and comfort for patients with conditions such as skeletal deformities.

From these designs, wheelchairs have changed and evolved into the lightweight, durable designs that we can find today. You can find a variety of different wheelchairs, each with their own features and benefits. Self-propelled wheelchairs, power wheelchairs, mobility scooters, sports wheelchairs, smart wheelchairs, and even mind-controlled wheelchairs have been developed in recent years. They all represent important scientific advancements and allow their users greater mobility and independence, allowing them to achieve a greater quality of life than what was possible in the past.

manual wheelchair against a white background
Standard wheelchair from the mid-20th century

With the use of wheelchairs becoming more widespread, wheelchair accessibility regulations and requirements have increased. Nowadays in most countries, accessibility must be guaranteed to wheelchair users when building a new structure. In many cases, even older buildings which were built before these regulations were created have to be remodeled in order to comply with these rules. You can even find contractors that specialize in building private homes that are customized for wheelchair use. These regulations allow people with disabilities to play a more active role in society, lead largely independent lives, and be able to interact with others as equals.

Famous Users of Wheelchairs

Throughout the history of wheelchairs, many wheelchair users have gone on to become famous figures. Some of them were born with disabilities, while others suffered accidents or developed conditions at some point in their lives which made it necessary for them to use wheelchairs. They all have one thing in common, though, and that is the fact that they proved that using a wheelchair is not an impediment to achieve your goals. Some of these famous wheelchair users include:

Stephen Hawking (1942-2018)

Stephen Hawking, an English physicist, cosmologist, and author. Hawking was probably the most famous wheelchair user in modern history. He was born healthy, but developed a motor neuron disease called Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis or ALS in his twenties, which gradually paralyzed him. Even after he became wheelchair-bound and lost his ability to speak, he continued his research and became one of the most influential scientists of all time.

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945)

Franklin D. Roosevelt was the only person to be elected as the President of the United States four times. He contracted polio, an infectious disease, at the age of 39. This illness left him unable to walk on his own. He led the United States through the hardships of World War II and the Great Depression. He is usually considered to be one of the greatest American presidents in history.

Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)

Frida Kahlo was a Mexican artist. She contracted polio when she was only 6 years old, which left her disabled. She also suffered serious injuries during a traffic accident at the age of 18, which caused her pain and health issues for the rest of her life. Despite this, she became a prolific painter who explored revolutionary topics such as gender, class, identity, and race. Her work has been acclaimed for generations, and has found even greater popularity in recent times. Today, she is considered by many to be an icon for progress and equality.

Tanni Grey-Thompson (1969- )

Tanni Grey-Thompson was born with spina bifida, and became one of the most successful disabled athletes in the United Kingdom. She won 16 Paralympic racing medals in total, 11 of which were gold. After retiring from sports, she was induced to the House of Lords, has received numerous honorary degrees, and has served as the Chancellor of Northumbria University since 2015.

Christopher Reeve (1952-2004)

Christopher Reeve was an American actor who achieved stardom thanks to his portrayal of Superman in 1978. In 1995, he became paraplegic after being thrown from a horse. After his injury, he became an activist and used his fame to bring attention to spinal cord injuries. He lobbied for greater stem cell research, became a public speaker, and created the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation.

The Foundation, which is still active, has donated millions of dollars to scientific research and quality-of-life grants. He never abandoned his passion for acting, though, and he made his directorial debut after his injury. His work was nominated for and won several awards, and his autobiography became a New York Times Best Seller.

Esther Vergeer (1981-)

Esther Vergeer is a retired Dutch wheelchair tennis player. From the age of 6, she started to show symptoms of strokes caused by a vascular myelopathy around her spinal cord. After repeated strokes, she became paralyzed at the age of 9 following a surgical procedure. As part of her rehabilitation, she learned how to play wheelchair sports, eventually settling on wheelchair tennis.

She is widely considered to be the greatest wheelchair tennis player of all time and one of the most dominant players in any sport. She won 48 Grand Slam tournaments and 7 Paralympic titles. She was ranked as the number one wheelchair tennis player from 1999 until her retirement in 2013, and never lost a match after 2003. She retired on a winning streak of 470 matches.

Wrapping Up

Over the centuries, wheelchairs have evolved from being cumbersome, heavy equipment to more modern and lightweight designs and materials. It is easy to see why: as technology and science have evolved and improved, it is only natural that those advancements should be used to make the best wheelchairs for people who need help with their mobility.

From wooden, stiff chairs that could only be moved if someone pushed them to the mind-controlled wheelchair invented in 2016, wheelchairs continue –and will continue to- improve with time.


About Scott Grant, ATP, CRTS® 305 Articles
Assistive Technology Professional, Custom Wheelchair Specialist, Medical Equipment Guru, Dad and Grandfather
I am a lucky dad to four awesome daughters and grandfather to three pretty terrific grandkids. When not working as a custom wheelchair specialist at a regional home medical equipment company, I enjoy early morning runs and occasional kayak trips. I am also a self-admitted nerd who loves anything from the 1980's. Learn More

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