Bath, England, wasn’t just the hotbed of romance and gossip depicted in Jane Austen novels—it was a place of freedom for people with limited mobility who sought the healing waters of its Roman baths.
These tourists often arrived in an “invalid” or “Merlin’s chair”—a predecessor of the wheelchair. These revolutionary vehicles freed them to participate in the city’s famous social life, usually with the help of servants who pushed them from place to place.
But though they offered unprecedented mobility, these wicker-and-wood chairs were seen as a sign of invalidism and dependence—and couldn’t have been more different from the modern wheelchairs that offer even more ways to move. How did wheelchairs go from clunky to user-friendly? Thank wheelchair users themselves.
'Merlin chairs' and other early wheelchairs
Wheeled seats have existed since the invention of the wheel, but it took centuries for the devices to gain traction with the masses. At first, people with mobility issues were pushed in wheelbarrow-like devices or wheeled furniture pushed by medical attendants or servants. When Philip II of Spain, who suffered from gout and arthritis, commissioned a wheeled chair in the late 16th century, it was known as an “invalid’s chair.”
It would take until 1655 for the first self-propelled wheelchair to emerge. Stephan Farffler, a clockmaker who lost the use of his legs in a childhood accident, created the device so he could propel himself to and from church in Nuremberg, Germany. His invention resembled a modern recumbent bike, relying on a hand crank to propel himself forward. Today, it’s considered a forerunner of the tricycle, but at the time, the unique invention hinted at the potential uses of self-powered, wheeled devices.
Farffler’s design pushed wheelchair technology forward, and a number of inventors created similar devices. One of them, Belgian impresario John Joseph Merlin, created a “gouty chair” that relied on gears and cranks to propel users. The design became so popular that wheelchairs were called “Merlin chairs” for more than a century afterward.
Still, even these early wheelchairs were mainly used by wealthy people with servants to push them. That’s because they were difficult to produce, heavy, hard to operate, and almost completely ineffective outdoors—more like indoor furniture than assistive devices. As art historian and disability historian Elizabeth Guffey writes, “It was a delicate chair for delicate people.”
The first mass-produced wheelchair
Wheelchairs became more ubiquitous as years went by, especially in the wake of the Civil War and both World Wars, which left hundreds of thousands of veterans with compromised mobility. But wheelchairs were seen as medical devices, not accessories for independent living, in part due to their size and cost.
In the 1930s, paralyzed mining engineer Herbert Everest complained about the weight of his heavy wheelchair to another engineer, Henry Jennings. Together in Jennings’ Los Angeles garage, the pair created a foldable wheelchair that weighed half as much and cost much less to produce. It would become the first mass-produced wheelchair—and the most popular design of its time. Suddenly, wheelchair users could propel themselves outside, get into and out of cars, and go where they wanted with little or no assistance.
Ironically, though, the advancement would go on to stymie wheelchair development for decades due to the inventors’ monopoly on the foldable design and prevailing attitudes about disability that suggested wheelchair users needed to be protected from the world. Even medical professionals objected to alternative designs that emphasized user independence.
“Perhaps [medical professionals] thought that they knew best,” says Nicholas Watson, Professor of Disability Studies and Director of the Centre for Disability Research at the University of Glasgow.
Wheelchairs made for—and by—their users
Wheelchair use skyrocketed with the polio pandemic of the 1940s and the increasing toll of modern warfare—plus the development of antibiotics that allowed more people to survive spinal cord injuries, says Watson.
Once again, a new generation of wheelchair users clamored for more—and ended up revolutionizing the use and meaning of wheelchairs. Some weren’t content to simply sit in the chairs; they wanted to play in them, too. Starting in the 1960s, wheelchair athletes in search of better athletic performance started modifying their chairs to make them lighter and easier to use.
And the growing disability rights movement stoked even more demand for better wheelchairs from users themselves. “When people look at a disabled person, the wheelchair is the most outstanding trait, and they tend to forget that they’re a person,” athlete Marilyn Hamilton, who lost the use of her legs after a paragliding accident, told the Los Angeles Times in 1982.
Hamilton was one of the athletes who pushed for better wheelchairs—or made their own. Athletes reduced the chairs’ weight by removing the handles others once used to push them—a declaration of independence and a way to lighten the chairs. Then, they started modifying the wheels, adding speed and maneuverability with modifications that ran counter to designs created to “protect” users from the world outside.
Eventually, writes Watson, wheelchair athletes were all but making their own wheelchairs. By the 1970s and 1980s, wheelchairs with names like Quadra and Quickie were changing the way users experienced the world around them, giving them unprecedented access indoors and outdoors.
“Our chairs are so aesthetically pleasing that it helps break down [barriers between people of different abilities,” said Hamilton, who helped design the ultralight Quickie wheelchair. “It’s a tremendous asset for disabled people.”
Meanwhile, powered wheelchairs, first introduced in Canada in the 1950s, were increasingly available, too, allowing people with arm mobility limitations to use wheelchairs, too.
The legacy of wheelchair innovations
These lighter, more maneuverable chairs didn’t just change the daily lives of the people who used them—they changed their self-perception. The history of wheelchair development “shows disabled people as active agents and directing their own lives,” Watson says—lives that are made more mobile and independent.
So what’s next for wheelchair design? Watson predicts that artificial intelligence will be increasingly used in wheelchair navigation. Engineers are also working on ways to prevent dangerous wheelchair tips, even bringing tech like radar and cameras on board. These days, everything from sit/stand wheelchairs to personalized rim design and custom wheels support users’ individual needs while adding a bit of flair to their ride.
Where will wheelchairs take their users next? The answer is only a matter of time, technology, and belief in the inherent abilities of wheelchair users.