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.
While we were walking into Kohl’s one day, The Four-Year-Old asked, “When did they invent wheelchairs?” Fortunately that particular Kohl’s has excellent cell service, so I was able to ask the iPhone without too much delay.
When did they invent wheelchairs?
What is it with early mobile vehicle inventors and the three-wheel chassis?
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.*
Again with the three wheels!
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 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.
*Update: A Caterpickles reader in San Antonio emailed me to report that the first wheelchair was not built in 1595, but most likely much earlier. If a 525 AD Chinese engraving can be believed, wheelchairs have been in use for more than 1400 years. (See my comment below for the source link.)
Fascinating though all that may be, it turns out what The Four-Year-Old really wanted to know was…
“Do cats have wheelchairs?”
Bunnies do well in wheelchairs too, btw.