A journey through history: the invention of wheelchairs and crutches

A journey through history: the invention of wheelchairs and crutches

You will surely know the names of great inventors such as Johannes Gutenberg, Thomas Alva Edison, Nikola Tesla or Leonardo da Vinci. Today we want to travel back centuries and claim the role of all the great creators who, with their great ingenuity, contributed to improving the lives of people with reduced mobility.

Researcher Kay Nias, who specializes in the history of physiotherapy, investigated the history of the wheelchair for the London Science Museum and we have decided to share her interesting contribution.

It is unknown when the first wheelchair was invented, but there are some stone inscriptions from ancient China and Greece dating back to the 6th century A.D. stating the existence of similar furniture.

It is documented that an anonymous inventor made a wheelchair for King Philip II of Spain in 1595, since the monarch had problems walking due to gout. This chair had a plush upholstery and four small wheels, so it was pushed by a servant.

In 1655, the German watchmaker Stephan Farffler created the first self-propelled wheelchair. The inventor broke his back as a child and had mobility problems, so he decided to apply his mechanical skills to build a vehicle to help him get around. The structure of his chair consisted of a frame with three wheels that worked through a system of gears and cranks.

It was from the second half of the eighteenth century when there were significant improvements in wheelchairs. In Bath, in the south-west of England, a variety of designs were developed to meet the demands of its visitors. The city was a famous destination for its spas and physiotherapies, which attracted people with disabilities from all over Europe.

The bath chair invented by John Dawson in 1783 became quite popular and a favorite means of transportation for wealthy people with limited mobility.

In the 19th century, rear push tires were invented to give users more independence and ease of maneuvering. Later, in 1930 the American engineers Harry Jennings and Herbert Everest developed the folding wheelchair when the latter had an accident in the mine. Its great commercial success continues to this day.

Years later, Canadian inventor George Klein and his team of engineers invented the first electric wheelchair in order to help many surviving soldiers of World War II.

Over time, lighter materials such as titanium and aluminum were used. Likewise, models adapted for sports were made, such as the ‘Shadow Racer’, designed by Jim Martinson, a Vietnam War veteran who lost both legs.

Stairlift chairs

Some historians say that the first stairlift was used by Henry VIII of England in the 16th century. The king had fallen from a horse and was being carried up the stairs by a huge chair that was powered by a rope system.

However, its popularity began in 1920 in the United States. The Inclinator Company of America produced and marketed the first stairlifts.


Ancient carvings in Egyptian tombs from 2830 BC show figures with canes similar to the crutches that exist today, which is why it is known that they have helped mobility for millennia.

Other representations are known. Bosco drew something similar to a walker in his paintings. Also, a 16th century embroidery in the Burrell Collection museum shows a walker on wheels.

We also know that popular literature in the early nineteenth century described characters who used them. For example, Little Tim in Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol.

The first crutches were shaped like a “T” and were made of wood. Little by little, their design became a “V” shape, as it would have support for the armpits and a grip.

Crutches with support on the forearm would be patented in 1917 by the French engineer Emile Schlicke. After the First World War, this design would be in great demand.

Years later, Anders R Lofstrand Jr made the lower shafts and forearm adjustable. So designer Thomas Fetterman, who used crutches after having polio in 1953, also made a significant contribution by adding rubber feet to them.

After traveling with us to the past, tell us, did you know the history behind these mobility aids?

Sources: Science Museum, Stannah, ThoughtCo, Essentialaids.com, BBC, US National Library of Medicine


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