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Wheelchairs have existed since the invention of the wheel. But technological advances have revolutionized the way that people use them.
Bath, England, wasn’t just the hotbed of romance and gossip depicted in Jane Austen novels—it was a place of freedom for people with limited mobility who sought the healing waters of its Roman baths.
These tourists often arrived in an “invalid” or “Merlin’s chair”—a predecessor of the wheelchair. These revolutionary vehicles freed them to participate in the city’s famous social life, usually with the help of servants who pushed them from place to place.
But though they offered unprecedented mobility, these wicker-and-wood chairs were seen as a sign of invalidism and dependence—and couldn’t have been more different from the modern wheelchairs that offer even more ways to move. How did wheelchairs go from clunky to user-friendly? Thank wheelchair users themselves.
‘Merlin chairs’ and other early wheelchairs
Wheeled seats have existed since the invention of the wheel, but it took centuries for the devices to gain traction with the masses. At first, people with mobility issues were pushed in wheelbarrow-like devices or wheeled furniture pushed by medical attendants or servants. When Philip II of Spain, who suffered from gout and arthritis, commissioned a wheeled chair in the late 16th century, it was known as an “invalid’s chair.”