The power chair is a revolutionary invention that has been around for decades, assisting individuals with disabilities and mobility limitations. The electric wheelchair has also helped inspire more inventors to design and upgrade wheelchairs to better accommodate for mobility situations and obstacles on the road.
We’ll give you a brief motorized wheelchair history to catch you up to speed on the past, present, and future.
George Klein, who was born in 1904 in Hamilton, Canada, is credited for having helped design and invent what is known as the first electric or motorized wheelchair. His inventions inspired other inventors, who often looked to his designs to create new, innovative inventions in various industries.
His childhood was spent working and shadowing his father’s jewelry store, where he tinkered with items and watched the mechanics of watches with fascination. His curiosity for mechanical devices became solidified as he grew older and he grew a fondness for mechanical devices and finding solutions to everyday problems.
Although he was not a great student during his early years, he is still considered to be one of Canada’s most revered and accomplished inventors of the 20th century. His impact was felt for decades and gave way to some of the revolutionary power chairs with technological advancements we see today.
He eventually gained entrance to the University of Toronto, which would pave the path for his later career in designing a powerful electric wheelchair that would change the way people move and get around.
Klein invented the first electric motorized wheelchair, also known as “The Klein Chair,” along with a team of engineers at the National Research Council of Canada in 1929. Klein and his team initially worked on the concept of an electric wheelchair in order to assist veterans after World War II.
According to the University of Toronto, Klein worked as an engineer and designer at the National Research Council of Canada for nearly 40 years. Klein brainstormed and invented several helpful mobility devices and other inventions during his career timeline. This included the microsurgical staple gun, Canada’s first nuclear reactor, an international system for identifying ground cover snow, aircraft skis, a STEM antenna, and many more scientific tools. His most notable is the electric wheelchair for quadriplegics as well as his contributions to aviation and space.
While fine-tuning his invention, Klein worked to incorporate the joystick for easy navigation and user accessibility as well as separating wheel drives and sharper turn elements.
Here’s a brief list of the history of the wheelchair for reference from ThoughtCo. and Mobility Unlimited, as well as the varying stages of developments and fine-tuning that led from manual wheelchair to electric wheelchair:
- Wheelchairs have been used in China since 525 AD.
- In 1595, a wheelchair was invented specifically for Phillip II of Spain by an inventor whose name is not known.
- In 1655, a paraplegic watchmaker known Stephen Farfler built a self-propelling chair on a three-wheel.
- John Dawson of Bath, England invented a wheelchair named after the town itself in 1783.
- The first patent for a wheelchair model with back wheels and small front casters was introduced in 1869.
- During 1867-1875, several inventors added new rubber wheels similar in nature to that of bicycles.
- Pushrims for wheelchairs for self-propelling purposes were invented in 1881.
- The first spoked wheels were utilized on wheelchairs in 1900.
- The first motorized power wheelchair was made in London in 1916.
- Engineer Harry Jennings built the first folding tubular wheelchair out of steel in 1932.
- The company, Everest & Jennings, introduced the manufacturing of the electric wheelchair in 1956, shortly after their invention of the folding wheelchair.
So how were motorized wheelchairs distributed in the USA and Europe?
B ringing it back to now, Invacare has been a trusted and preferred brand distributing mobility devices for people with disabilities in Europe since 1885. Invacare operates in all European countries and more.
And after the electric chair gained much success in Canada post-1929, the desire to continue to spread the power chair to the U.S. and internationally was initiated before it soon became available to the masses with patent-free rights.
What does the future for power wheelchairs look like?
We have come a long way since the 20th century in terms of power wheelchairs for everyday use. Evolving technological advancements have made way for newer and futuristic power wheelchairs.
New wheelchair technology also includes driverless wheelchairs, a similar concept to driverless or self-driving cars. The concept of driverless power wheelchair technology is already a reality. In fact, two power wheelchairs with driverless capabilities were showcased at Tokyo’s airport recently. The driverless capabilities were programmed with the use of a cell phone connected to the wheelchair, which told it what to do, and where to turn. This is indeed the future of power wheelchairs -- with mapping software and built-in sensors that can sense danger or obstacles in its path.
These power chairs were showcased in Tokyo in an effort to test a new project for individuals who use power wheelchairs and plan to travel when Japan hosts the 2020 Olympics. These “driverless cars” are known as WHILL NEXT, or a mobility robot that will change the way individuals with mobility vehicles navigate. Instead of using a joystick, they’ll be using an app that will tell the mobility device where to turn.
How does this work? Well, for starters, individuals who visit the airport will be able to have full control over the WHILL NEXT mobility device with a simple tap on a smartphone app. New Mobility writes: “The chair self-drives to their location, picks them up and delivers them to their destination. The app will even tell them how long it will take to get to their gate.”
There are also a ton of futuristic wheelchair designs that give us something to think about in terms of reimagining and finding easier ways to move around. Some of these designs include a minimalistic two-seat wheelchair which also accommodates another person to make moving around easier. There is also talk of creating a design for Illuminated Wheelchairs which would make it easier for wheelchair users to feel safe while navigating during the dark with illuminated LED lights that get powered by rotating wheels. Comfort and ergonomic, sleek design is also a necessity. There is also a prototype designed by Mauricio Maeda which focuses on a design that focuses on comfort and functionality while including important elements for the power wheelchair such as a wireless headset, a keyboard, drink holder, joystick, and more.
To keep on the same subject, inventors John Donoghue and Braingate also created a new wheelchair that would challenge the role of a traditional wheelchair. They created a special device that was essentially like a mind reader called “The BrainGate.” The BrainGate was connected to the individual’s brain and a computer which monitors and allows the person to send information or commands that direct the wheelchair to perform certain tasks.
All in all, the history of wheelchairs is one that has led to some great advancements and inventions that have inspired a wave of new technologically advanced wheelchairs as well.