From Hand-Crank to Power Knob: How Historical Wheelchairs Compare to Today's

Wheelchairs have come a long way! Stephen Farfler, a German watchmaker from the 1600's, had a knack for making things spin.

In addition to making watches tick and adding chimes to Nuremburg's clocktower, he also created the world's first self-propelled wheelchair. His inspiration for building this device stemmed from his life as a paraplegic that made it difficult for him to navigate the streets of Nuremberg. Although the device was considered innovative and even extraordinary at the time, people from today would think "Are you serious?"

The thing about Farfler's wheelchair is that it wasn't very practical for handicapped people. For one, it required people to bend over and use a great deal of arm strength to crank two handles above the front wheel. Additionally, his tricycle-like wheelchair was bulky and, without assistance, hard to get out of.

Because of the many problems with his design and extreme need for a reliable self-propelled wheelchair, mobility medical equipment started evolving quickly after Farfler's invention.


Flash forward 3 centuries and today we have mobile medical equipment like power wheelchairs and scooters.

Comparing Farfler's wheelchair to these devices is not like comparing apples and oranges. Instead, it's like comparing apples and onions. Both are produce, just like both devices are wheelchairs, but there's no other semblance of similarity. With Farfler's device, people had to propel their own weight – plus the weight of the heavy wooden wheelchair! – using only their own strength. With today's equipment, all people have to do is flick their wrist and move their fingers.

It's literally that easy, but we obviously didn't go directly from Farfler's device to the motorized device many people use today. There were devices in-between that gradually turned the self-propelled wheelchair into a user-friendly device.

The first device that allowed for a fair degree of user friendliness was the wheelchair with rear push wheels. Inspired by the "Bath" chair invented by John Dawson in 1783, the patent for the "rear push" wheelchair was made in 1869. Following the patent was the design and manufacturing of this wheelchair that dominated the market during the 19th century.

This design went on to inspire future designs like the foldable wheelchair and the power wheelchairs and scooters that make life extraordinarily convenient for millions of people today.