A little wheelchair history …

16 years ago

   by Dick  Graves


    My wife has recently lost a leg to cancer – an uncommon tragedy, for sure. Obviously, her life, and the lives of her immediate family members, have been changed irrevocably and forever. And wouldn’t you imagine that there were lots of tears and complaints and frequent “poor-me-and-what-a-lousy-life” declaration on her part? 

    Well, that simply hasn’t come to pass – only a few grunts and groans because of the severe inconveniences which she’s quickly overcoming and to which she’s adjusting. To compound this severe circumstance, the amputation was radical and no prosthesis (artificial limb) is possible. But still no whining. In my estimation, she could be the poster child for tolerance and acceptance to a radical and life-altering situation. She’s making the best of it and sometime in the near future, accompanied by a battery-powered wheelchair, she’ll be out and about driving, if you will, herself back and forth to her new shop, “Merchants on the Corner” in downtown Presque Isle – all by herself, I might add.
    That special wheelchair will give her the independence she wants and rightly deserves. Of course, the winters will prove another minor barrier to her independence. Luckily, we have the ARTS bus (Aroostook Regional Transportation System) which, for a very nominal fee, will pick her and her chair up every day, deliver her to the shop and return her home. Now, understand that Angie isn’t the first person on the planet with a loss of mobility to discover the powered wheelchair to deliver him or her to the far reaches of the area in which they live, areas which heretofore could only be arrived at accompanied by a family member or perhaps a friend pushing a conventional wheelchair. In the past, these folks have stayed home and have rarely ventured but only a short distance. Times have changed. Those folks now have battery-powered wheelchairs in which to roam around outside of their immediate areas. In fact, you’ve seen several lately making their way up hill and down dale and strolling city streets. It’s heart warming to see these once-sequestered people now armed with newly found freedoms to go where they want without being pushed, if you will.
    Wheelchairs aren’t new, in fact, several versions have been around for four centuries or more. The oldest, perhaps, has been found on an ancient Greek vase depicting the transport of a child on a table with small wheels fitted on the legs. It’s known that King Philip II of Spain sometime between the mid and late 1550s had a chair constructed either because he had a mobility problem or it was simply for His Majesty’s lazy pleasure. The chair had small wheels attached to the legs and a footrest. Ratchets were fabricated to adjust the angle of its back and legs. In the late 1800s, a gentleman named John Merlin, inventor of the roller skate, devised, perhaps, the first modern wheelchair with two full-size wheels on the sides with a light, outer wheel of a slightly lesser orbit (circumference) enabling the operator to control the chair without touching the dirty (larger) wheels.
    Later, in the late 1800s, rubber tires and wire-spoked wheels of bicycle origin were incorporated into the wheelchair. Little doubt that the wheelchair we know today was the marriage of the tricycle and the chair. An interesting version of a wheelchair appeared in the late 1800s made of wicker (see photo). That version didn’t stand up to much wear and tear and was soon discontinued on a commercial basis.
    In 1912, a one and three-quarter horse-powered engine was attached to what was called an invalid chair, a chair with two large wheels on the sides and a third smaller wheel attached to a steering mechanism – the very first motorized wheelchair. In 1919, a mining engineer, Herbert Everest, broke his back in a mining accident and lost the use of his legs. He became extremely dissatisfied with his large, wooden chair and wanted one he could stow in an automobile. With the help of a mechanical-engineer friend, they created a lighter weight, foldable chair that was easily transported and practical to use. A partnership was established and they began manufacturing the metal folding chair. In November of 1973, the 1 millionth chair was produced by the Everest & Jennings company. The same company was also the first to produce the commercially available electric chair.
    The electric chair evolved from one of the tragic legacies of WW II – thousands of fighting GI’s returned from the battlefields with missing legs, many quadriplegics. During that time, prolific Canadian-born inventor, George Klein, came up with the idea and prototype of a motorized (electric), joystick-driven wheelchair to give mobility to those who had lost legs. Sadly, no Canadian manufacturer stepped in to build the chairs and the design was handed over to the United States (Everest & Jennings). In 1955, that same prototype was donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It’s considered one of the most significant artifacts in the history of Canadian science, engineering and invention. In 2005, the chair was received on loan for exhibit from Smithsonian to the Canadian Science & Technology Museum. Klein, often considered as Canada’s most productive and prolific inventor of the 20th century, died in 1992.
    Next week … Frank and Earl, Presque Isle’s oldest “long-distance” wheelchairers. These two high-profile gentlemen are, and should be, great inspirations to those who have lost, at least in part, the use of their legs. Comments? Write to the editor of this paper.


 ImagePhoto courtesy of Dick Graves
    A WICKER WHEELCHAIR from the late 1800s.




Photo courtesy of Dick GravesImage
    KING PHILIP of Spain in His Majesty’s wheelchair.