When and How the Wheelchair Opened up the World to Disabled People

Bath, England, wasn’t just the hotbed of romance and gossip depicted in Jane Austen novels—it was a place of freedom for people with limited mobility who sought the healing waters of its Roman baths.

These tourists often arrived in an “invalid” or “Merlin’s chair”—a predecessor of the wheelchair. These revolutionary vehicles freed them to participate in the city’s famous social life, usually with the help of servants who pushed them from place to place.

But though they offered unprecedented mobility, these wicker-and-wood chairs were seen as a sign of invalidism and dependence—and couldn’t have been more different from the modern wheelchairs that offer even more ways to move. How did wheelchairs go from clunky to user-friendly? Thank wheelchair users themselves.

‘Merlin chairs’ and other early wheelchairs
Wheeled seats have existed since the invention of the wheel, but it took centuries for the devices to gain traction with the masses. At first, people with mobility issues were pushed in wheelbarrow-like devices or wheeled furniture pushed by medical attendants or servants. When Philip II of Spain, who suffered from gout and arthritis, commissioned a wheeled chair in the late 16th century, it was known as an “invalid’s chair.”

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It would take until 1655 for the first self-propelled wheelchair to emerge. Stephan Farffler, a clockmaker who lost the use of his legs in a childhood accident, created the device so he could propel himself to and from church in Nuremberg, Germany. His invention resembled a modern recumbent bike, relying on a hand crank to propel himself forward. Today, it’s considered a forerunner of the tricycle, but at the time, the unique invention hinted at the potential uses of self-powered, wheeled devices.

Farffler’s design pushed wheelchair technology forward, and a number of inventors created similar devices. One of them, Belgian impresario John Joseph Merlin, created a “gouty chair” that relied on gears and cranks to propel users. The design became so popular that wheelchairs were called “Merlin chairs” for more than a century afterward.

Still, even these early wheelchairs were mainly used by wealthy people with servants to push them. That’s because they were difficult to produce, heavy, hard to operate, and almost completely ineffective outdoors—more like indoor furniture than assistive devices. As art historian and disability historian Elizabeth Guffey writes, “It was a delicate chair for delicate people.”

Source: National Geographic