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Wheelchair frame progression, part I

This two-part blog belongs to our TiLite balanced ride blog series. See part 1part 2, part 3part 4 and part 5. See our page all about a TiLite Balanced Ride here.


Today, we’re excited to share with you a look at the progression of manual wheelchair frame design in the hopes of deepening your understanding of the choices to consider when selecting your next chair.

As Curtis touched on earlier, the development of mobility using rolling devices started over 2,000 years ago! But in the last 80 years, the design has been refined and evolved into the manual wheelchair as we know it today. Let’s take a look at that progression…


The History of Wheelchair Design

Thousands of years ago, those that could not mobilize themselves were carried, lying down, on a stretcher. Eventually, signs of dependent wheeled mobility devices, used in the upright sitting position, started appearing in art depictions in the Chinese culture.

Then, in 1595, an unknown Spanish inventor built a chair on wheels for King Phillip II. The king had gout late in his life and required a mobility aid. This aid, however, required an attendant, as it was not self-propelling. Comparisons have been made with “a rolling highchair”, which seems to be a good description when looking at the drawing.

Then, it happened. In 1665, Stephen Farfler designed and built a wheelchair that could be moved by the rider…for himself! Farfler was 22 years old, and had lower extremity paralysis. While it was a heavy device that was cumbersome to move (via hand crank and gears), it was the first wheeled mobility device designed for self-propulsion.

In the 1700s, John Dawson created a wheelchair with three wheels: two in the back and one in the front. He named it after his English town of residence, Bath. This chair was self-propelling, and it had a steering aid in the front for when the person using it needed assistance. It could also be adjusted for use with a pony if necessary. It was popular among those who could afford it, but it wasn’t comfortable.

While the wheelchair continued to evolve, it wasn’t until 1932, when Harry Jennings built the first folding, tubular manual wheelchair for a friend, Herbert Everest, that the modern-day wheelchair form emerged. This was the dawn of the Everest & Jennings wheelchair company, which led the industry for many years. (Stewart & Watson, 2019). The chair design included an “X” bracket, which allowed it to fold and easily store or transport. This design changed the industry forever.

To this day, folding wheelchair frames continue to be an appropriate choice for many users. However, today’s folding chair takes the design to a new level! The TiLite Aero X is equipped with a balanced mix of lightweight materials, superior durability, full configurability for performance, aesthetic lines, and many options to customize for individual needs. However, just because the wheelchair folds does not mean you have to use the original sling-style upholstery of the traditional manual wheelchair. Removable solid back supports and a variety of seat cushion designs can easily be added on a folding frame to ensure posture, function, and skin integrity is preserved.

But let’s take a moment to visit another milestone in wheelchair development history. In 1972, the first rigid frame manual wheelchair was introduced. “The Quadra” was the first completely adjustable, rigid, aluminum manual wheelchair produce by a wheelchair athlete name Jeff Minnebraker (Stewart & Watson, 2019). This “box-style” wheelchair frame was constructed of aluminum for reduced weight and to provide rigidity in the design for improved efficiency of propulsion. This was a game-changer.

Once again, the people who used wheelchairs continued to push innovation forward. Wheelchair athletes were known to take standard manual wheelchairs like this and modify them with lighter components and configurations with the aim of enhancing their own performance in their sport.

Join us for part II next week where we look at how TiLite became an industry player, and the performance differences between mono- and dual-tube design.


TiLite Balanced Ride


References: Stewart, H., & Watson, N. (2019). A Sociotechnical History of the Ultralightweight Wheelchair: A Vehicle of Social Change. Science, Technology, & Human Values, 45(6), 1195-1219. doi:10.1177/0162243919892558

Catherine Sweeney

Catherine Sweeney, PT, ATP/SMS
Permobil Regional Clinical Education Manager

Catherine is a PT, ATP/SMS currently serving as Regional Clinical Education Manager for Permobil covering the West Coast. Catherine has extensive clinical experience in acute care, acute rehabilitation, and out-patient settings with a primary focus on wheelchair seating and positioning.

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