Modern wheelchairs are lightweight, customizable, and available for sports, battery-operated and constantly being improved. In spite of the modern feel of wheelchairs, they have been around in one form or another for much longer than most people would guess. Probably from the time that wheels were invented and the time that chairs were around, it was natural that the two would come together. If that seems like an exaggeration, then read on about the history of antique wheelchairs.
A Long, Long Time Ago
The oldest existing picture of a chair with wheels is from China – in the 6th Century! The odds that they were around before someone drew a picture that would survive this long are excellent. There is also an image of a wheeled chair from Ancient Egypt. Again, it’s more likely that it exists because their culture made long-lasting images than that they invented antique wheelchairs. Records show that in the 16th Century, King Phillip of Spain owned an elaborate rolling chair and in 1700, King Louis XIV of France used a wheeled conveyance while recuperating from an operation. No doubt commoners with a flair for furniture building found uses for antique wheelchairs as well.
It was in the 18th Century that the antique wheelchairs began to resemble our modern version. It had two large front wheels and a caser in the back. After the American Civil War and World War I, antique wheelchairs were built with wooden frames, wicker seats, big spoked wheels and featured adjustable arm and foot rests. A patent was filed in 1894 for the first wheelchair that could be propelled by the occupant.
The first folding wheelchair was designed in 1932. It was invented by an injured mining engineer and a mechanical engineer who went on to found the E&J Company. These antique wheelchairs are probably quite collectible since the same company developed the first powered wheelchair in the 1950s. This is the same decade that saw wheelchair sports develop in England. The first Paralympics were held in Tokyo, Japan in 1964. Wheelchair athlete Bob Hall completed the 1975 Boston Marathon in a manual wheelchair.
Lighter weight antique wheelchairs began showing up in the 1970s and 1980s in response to the need for sports chairs. Microprocessor controls for power chairs showed up in the 1980s. After this point, the term “antique wheelchairs” seems out of place. The developments in the 1990s were very modern, but nevertheless the history of antique wheelchairs is truly amazing.