Wheels on chairs for invalids go back a very long way. We have documentary evidence of them in a Chinese print reliably dated to AD525, but human ingenuity quite possibly put chairs and wheels together long before that.
It’s likely, though, that only the rich had such chairs. Certainly, once wheeled chairs for invalids begin to regularly pop up in the documentary record, the posteriors seated in them belonged to the rich and the noble.
Self-propelling chairs arrived remarkably quickly after that, unsurprisingly developed by someone who was himself in need of a chair. In 1655, Stephen Farfler, a paraplegic watchmaker, moved himself around in a chair with three wheels. He moved around by turning handles that worked on the geared front wheel.
Most of the sites I looked at when researching wheelchairs jump from Farfler to John Dawson of Bath. But wheelchairs – both ordinary chairs with wheels and more advanced chairs designed specifically to have wheels – continued right through.
And, in any case, the Bath chair was invented around 1750 by James Heath. Bath was becoming popular as a spa town, but it was not designed to easily get around in a carriage, and ordinary wheelchairs really only worked well on a flat surface such as inside the house.
The Bath Chair was designed to take invalids out and about; primarily down to the Roman Baths for the treatment, and then back home again. Until then, invalids used the sedan chair, which required two attendants to carry. The Bath Chair just needed one person at the back pushing. Furthermore, the occupant of the chair had the steering stick and could therefore directly control the direction of travel. I can see that would be appealing to the average wealthy dowager!
You can see from the advertisement that Heath also sold wheelchairs. The example shown appears to have wheels at the front and stabilising legs at the rear, so no doubt the attendant lifted slightly when he pushed.
But the self-propelling chair had not gone away. John Joseph Merlin, a Belgian inventor and watchmaker (and, perhaps not incidentally the inventor of the in-line skate) created a successful chair that became the model for others. Keith Armstrong, in A very short history of the bicycle and wheelchair, says:
In the mid 1770’s he invented roller-skates and presented his new creation by arriving at a London party playing his violin whilst gliding around the room. Merlin received rapacious applause and an encore, the party-goers demanded that he repeated his act, during the second attempt, he quickly discovered that he didn’t known how to stop and he had a major accident. The next we read about him is of the invention of a new type of self-propelled wheelchair… His design was so successful that 120 years later, a London catalogue of medical equipment was able to boast nine different ‘Merlin’ wheelchairs available on their books. Merlin died in 1803.
As far as I can tell, the Merlin chair had small handles on its arms. But the name ‘Merlin chair’ was retained for later chairs where the occupant was able to turn the large rear wheels to get around, and – by the late 19th century – the smaller propelling wheel had arrived, to help people keep their hands clean.
Meanwhile, back at the end of the 18th century, let’s not forget John Dawson. The most prominent Bath chair maker of his time, his chairs outsold everyone else’s. Since, by all accounts, they were not very comfortable, we must assume that the others were worse!
There’s still a long way to go till we get to the sort of chair I’ve shown below, but the rest of the journey can wait for another post.