Motorised wheelchairs: propelling users into the future

Wheelchairs have always been crucial in giving back independent mobility to those without, enabling them to move around and complete daily tasks without assistance. However, for a long time they only gave independence to those capable of pushing themselves. For those who had upper body mobility problems they still had to rely on someone else to push their chair for them, taking away any sense of independence.

Attempts to motorise the wheelchair came earlier than most people expect. Although most credit Canadian inventor George Klein with the invention, attempts were made as early as 1912. An engineer attached a combustion engine to what was known as an ‘invalid tricycle’. Despite the fact that this failed, others caught on to the idea. Engineer George Westinghouse produced drawings for an electric wheelchair design; sadly he never saw the designs to fruition as he died in 1914. In 1916 the first commercial power-chair was produced, but the high cost prevented it from being a success.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that the first motorised wheelchair was made available to the general public. George Klein and his team had been working on developing a model of the motorised wheelchair since the end of the second world war, hoping to help veterans with upper body injuries as well as mobility injuries gain some independence. Klein and his team developed a reliable model, remodelling the x-frame wheelchair by 1954, involving a controller, batteries, a hand control and two motors. This is the same basic system that is used today. Whist the model was ground breaking it wasn’t not made popular until Everest and Jennings copied the system and launched the US model in 1956.

There were no huge leaps in this initial design until the 1980s. The increasing traction of the Independent Living Movement, a movement seeking equal opportunities, self-determination and self-respect for many groups, including the disabled, encouraged innovation in the designs. Engineers and designers worked on making the chairs more manoeuvrable, and lower the pricing. By the 2000s they had become a vital tool for independence with high-speed motors, extended battery life, power steering and suspension.

In the past few years technology has been taking many a leap and bound forwards yet again. Some of the new designs and conceptions being released look almost futuristic but in many cases they are already available to the general public. Present designers are trying to make all parts of the world accessible to all by designing wheelchairs that can handle everything from an  undulating urban environment, a muddy woodland or a beach with designs such as the ‘Mountain Trike’. Another major area of present innovation is looking to make automatic wheelchairs less expensive with designs like Ju Hyun Lee’s NEWS (New Electric Wheelchairs). This is a removable attachment that can be fitted to a manual wheelchair to electronically power the wheels.

From the first 1 3/4 horse power engine in 1912 to present day, motorised wheelchairs have propelled their users into independence and the future of design.