“When did they invent wheelchairs?”

King Phillip II of Spain in his 1595 wheelchair. (Image via WheelchairNet)

For reasons that are lost in the dustbin of my memory, The Four-Year-Old became intensely interested in wheelchairs about a month or two ago.

“When did they invent wheelchairs?” The Four-Year-Old asked while we walking into Kohl’s one day. Fortunately that particular Kohl’s has excellent 3G reception, so I was able to Ask the iPhone without too much delay.

If my source can be believed, the first wheelchair was custom-built in 1595 for Phillip II of Spain. Some 70 years later, a paraplegic watchmaker named Stephen Farfler built himself a self-propelling chair on a three-wheel chassis. (What is it with early mobile vehicle inventors and the three-wheel chassis?)

Wheelchairs didn’t hit the big time though until 1783, when John Dawson introduced the Bath chair, which he named after his hometown of Bath, England. Although the three-wheeled chair (again with the three wheels!) reportedly wasn’t that comfortable, sales were brisk. The demand for wheelchairs combined with the discomfort of sitting in a Bath chair for long periods of time prompted a string of improvements to the basic design–a pattern of tinkering that ultimately led to the wheelchair as we know it today.

Fascinating though all that may be, turns out what The Four-Year-Old really wanted to know was, “Do cats have wheelchairs?”

Yes, and dogs, thanks to companies like Eddie’s Wheels, K9 Carts, Dog Karts, and Handicapped Pets.

Bunnies do well in wheelchairs too, btw.

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About Shala Howell

I spent two decades helping companies like Bell Labs, Juniper Networks, and a genetic testing company that was later acquired by CVS translate some of the world’s most complicated concepts into actionable, understandable English. Now I'm working on a much harder problem -- fostering children’s curiosity and engagement in the scientific, artistic, and linguistic world that surrounds them. The first book in my Caterpickles Parenting Series, What’s That, Mom?, focuses on how to use public art to nurture children’s curiosity in the world around them. My next book will focus on science, and how parents without a science degree can answer their curious child's questions without enrolling in a college level refresher course. In the meantime, you can find me blogging about life with a very curious Eleven-Year-Old at Caterpickles.com, chatting about books and the writing life at BostonWriters.blog, and tweeting about books, writing, science, & things that make me smile at @shalahowell.
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2 Responses to “When did they invent wheelchairs?”

  1. Shala Howell says:

    Commenting on my own post to share the latest from our Caterpickles Correspondent in San Antonio who pointed out via Facebook that King Phillip’s wheelchair was not the first of its kind… Apparently the first record of man putting wheels on furniture is on a Greek vase dated from 530 BC. That’s a wheeled crib, though.

    The first documented evidence of a wheelchair comes from a 525 AD Chinese engraving. Did it really take man 1000 years to move the wheels from a child’s bed to a chair? Probably not, but for now, I feel compelled to strip the title of Inventor of the Wheelchair from King Phillip’s furniture-maker and hand it to the Chinese.

    Thanks for sharing the info, San Antonio Correspondent.

    Source: http://www.wheelchairnet.org/WCN_WCU/SlideLectures/Sawatzky/WC_history.html


  2. Pingback: Of Course I Can Dance! | A Taxi Dog Diary

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