History of the Power Wheelchair

In the United States, an estimated 3.3 million people use wheelchairs, including 1.8 million who are aged 65 or older. There are approximately 2 million new wheelchair users per year. Globally, an estimated 131 million people (1.85% of the total population) require a wheelchair for a wide range of reasons.

Wheelchairs provide increased mobility and independence for users and allow them to take part in normal activities, despite their reduced mobility. The power wheelchair is a more recent invention, which has a number of additional benefits for users, including the ability to travel without experiencing fatigue. Power wheelchairs also offer greater independence to people with disabilities that limit their arm strength or movement.

We will highlight the interesting history of the power wheelchair. We’ll also take a look back at the manual wheelchair and what the future holds for power wheelchairs in general.

The History of the Wheelchair

Before we dive into the history of the power wheelchair, it is necessary to take a step back and look at the manual wheelchair, which has its roots in antiquity. By its definition, a wheelchair is a chair with wheels that comes in a variety of formats designed to meet the specific needs of the user.

Going back to antiquity, the earliest records of wheelchairs, or at least wheeled furniture, date to the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, in Greece and China. Some centuries later, again in China, there are records of wheeled seated being used to transport the disabled and infirm. There are also many instances throughout history of royalty using wheeled chairs, including Philip II of Spain who used a rolling chair in the 16th century.

Jumping forward, the Bath chair (it is so-called because it was invented in Bath, England around 1760) helped to bring the technology of wheelchairs into more common use. Wheelchairs were introduced to the United States in the later 19th century.

The first modern lightweight, portable, and folding wheelchair was invented by C. Jennings, Sr and Herbert Everest in 1933. The latter had broken his neck in a mining accident. Together, they saw an opportunity to mass-market wheelchairs, which they did to great success.

Incidentally, their company, Everest & Jennings, would become the first to manufacture the power wheelchair on a mass scale, in 1956.

Who Invented the Power Wheelchair?

Armed with the above knowledge, let’s now study the breakthrough that resulted in the invention of the power wheelchair. The power wheelchair and the inventor George Klein will be forever linked, given it was he—one of Canada’s most productive inventors in the 20th century—who can be credited with its invention.

Klein was born in Ontario in 1915 and graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Toronto. In addition to the power wheelchair, some of his key contributions include the ZEEP nuclear reactor and the first microsurgical staple gun. For some 40 years, Klein worked for the National Research Council of Canada laboratories in Ottawa as a mechanical engineer.

The Klein Drive Chair was developed following World War II so as to assist injured veterans. It was thanks in part to the advocacy of a disabled WWI survivor, John Counsell, that the power wheelchair came to be. He made a request to the National Research Council and Klein to build a wheelchair that offered more than the manual version.

This is exactly what Klein did, describing his work on this project as the most rewarding of his career. Klein developed a package of technologies that included:

  • A joystick
  • Separate wheel drives
  • Tighter turning systems

Soon after Canadian war veterans were provided with power wheelchairs, efforts were made to engage manufacturers and increase access. The prototype Klein wheelchair was transferred to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs along with patent-free rights so as to encourage production in the United States. Power wheelchairs became available en masse within a few years.

Today, the power wheelchair market continues to grow steadily. By 2026, it is expected that the industry will be with almost $10 billion globally.

The Future of Power Wheelchairs

One of the most exciting inventions related to power wheelchairs in recent years has been the mind-controlled wheelchair. This was invented in 2016 by Diwakar Vaish, an Indian-born robotics researcher. It uses neural impulses to command the motion of the motorized wheelchair.

This type of wheelchair is particularly important to people living with locked-in syndrome. This is a disability that prevents a person from communicating verbally or moving due to paralysis of nearly all voluntary muscles. They are also of importance to people with muscular dystrophy.

In 2020, an innovative smart wheelchair won the Toyota-run global Mobility Unlimited Challenge. This wheelchair utilizes smart sensors to improve safety for users. For example, the wheelchair is able to adjust its center of gravity when necessary to prevent falling or tipping.

The Interesting History of the Power Wheelchair

If you or a loved one requires a wheelchair, your premier choice is Freedom Mobility Center. We are the largest independent provider of complex power wheelchairs in North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia and West Virginia.

We specialize in helping provide our patients find the correct power wheelchair for their needs. We have more than 20 years of industry experience and are committed to providing outstanding service.

Contact our expert team today for a free in-home assessment. We look forward to speaking with you.