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History of Personal Mobility Devices

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29th Nov 2017






The development of personal mobility devices been slow, and there’s still a long way to go for truly universal access

History of Personal Mobility DevicesThere is still a long way to go for truly universal access

Personal mobility devices have been used for centuries by people experiencing reduced mobility. Their benefit to society is invaluable and of the outmost importance!

However, the path towards the development of personal mobility devices has not been an easy one and there’s still a long way to go for truly universal access.

Therefore, it is important that we raise awareness and work towards living in a more inclusive society, where access to all buildings would not only be a universal right, but also a reality in practice.

History tells us that the evolution towards universal access has known many ups and downs, and despite all the changes and increased awareness, progress remains slow.

Let’s have a brief look at the history of personal mobility devices!

What is a personal mobility device?

The most common personal mobility devices are the typical walkers and walking sticks, used since time immemorial, and the wheelchairs, which have evolved more significantly in recent decades. But there are many more and some of them even have been used for centuries.

It was only in the second half of the 20th century that true awareness, regarding the need to adapt physical environments to people’s needs appeared. Thus arises, little by little, the concept of the elimination or removal of barriers, through the construction of ramps and lifts for easy access to buildings or to upper floors.

The walking stick has been used by elders since time immemorialThe walking stick has been used by elders since time immemorial

But the greatest turning point in the history of reduced mobility was in the year 1974, at the “United Nations Expert Group Meeting on Barrier Free Design”, held in New York. It was the official acknowledgement that the removal of physical barriers had to happen, so that people with reduced mobility could fully participate in all aspects of social life, on equal terms. It also established the need for educating architects, engineers, urban planners and landscape artists on universal access.

Evolution of awareness towards people with reduced mobility

Barriers that prevent universal access are everywhereBarriers that prevent universal access are everywhere.

If we look back to the Middle Ages, society did not feel any responsibility for people with reduced mobility or disabilities. So, there was little progress at that time. In addition, many of these people lived as outcasts in a society full of superstitions.

In the 15th century, Queen Elizabeth of Spain created the first hospital where soldiers were provided with prosthetic and therapeutic devices. They also received pensions. During her reign, institutions for children, blind, deaf and disabled people were also created.

In the 18th century – under the influence of Voltaire and Rousseau – there was a change in attitudes towards disabled people, based on a mindset shift. Gradually, society started to look at life and the world as the basis of human experience.

Simultaneously, with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, people with disabilities or reduced mobility begin to form part of a public responsibility.

Later, in the 19th century, with the development of medicine, scientists begin the study of the causes of disability.

Finally, in the 20th century, this change of attitude towards reduced mobility and disability changes more dramatically, due to the following factors:

  • Advances in science
  • A better educated society with empathy towards people with disabilities
  • The evolution of the industrial and capitalist society
  • Due to lack of manpower, during the world wars and global conflicts even people with physical limitations were required in the factories and to intervene in governmental structures
  • Social movements
  • Emergence of physical therapy as a medical specialty

Now join us on this journey through the history of personal mobility devices. We have much more to tell you!

Brief History of Personal Mobility Devices

The evolution of personal mobility devices is very much linked with the evolution of awareness towards people with reduced mobility.

Evolution of the wheelchair

Dialogue between Confucius and a child, while he is sit in a wheelchairThis a drawing of a fan unknown Chinese artists. It features in the first page of the “Xiao er lun”, where Confucius (551? B.C-478? B.C) has a dialogue with a child, while he is sit in a wheelchair. Source:

One of the first wheelchairs that we know about if from the time of Confucius, 5th century B.C. It was a very rudimentary version of a wheelchair, but was used with the purpose of helping people with any type of reduced mobility.

King Felipe II in his advanced wheelchairKing Felipe II in his advanced wheelchair, ahead of its time.

In 1595, King Felipe II of Spain used a fairly elaborate wheelchair for the time, with arm and foot rests.

18th century wheelchair18th century wheelchair

But it was only in the 18th century that the first wheelchair, closer to the ones we know today, appeared. It had two large front wheels and a small rear wheel.

19th century wheelchair, made of Wood and wicker.19th century wheelchair, made of Wood and wicker.

In the 19th century, wheelchairs were built primarily with wood and wicker. In the United States, wheelchairs became popular especially among the Veterans of the American Civil war and, later, by the Veterans of the First World War.

The first patent on a wheelchair is from 1869. It was a bimanual model driven by rear wheels. Soon new models would emerge.

Folding wheelchair from 193219th century wheelchair, made of Wood and wicker.

The first folding wheelchair was designed by two engineers, in 1932. One of them had an accident with a land mine during the First World War.Folding wheelchair from 1932.

The first wheelchair propulsion was designed by George Klein, in 1950.The first wheelchair propulsion, 1950.

Although the first electrically driven wheelchair dates to 1924, the first wheelchair propulsion was designed in 1950 by George Klein. The intent of the creation of this electric wheelchair was to help veterans of the Second World War.

Contrary to what happened in the First World War, many of the soldiers who suffered damage in the spinal column managed to survive, which meant a greater need for wheelchairs for veterans with physical disabilities. At that time, there were many advances in manual wheelchairs, however, it was not a solution for quadriplegic individuals, who were unable to use a wheelchair without the assistance of another person.

Thanks to the support of the Canadian Government and other scientists, George Klein managed to invent the electric wheelchair. No doubt that the existence of many soldiers and disabled war veterans has been key to the development of rehabilitation engineering.

In addition to the invention of the electric wheelchair, there have been several other important developments in personal mobility devices over the last century that are worth examining.

Mobility Scooters

Mobility scooters were introduced for the first time in the late 1960s, early 70s. They were quite successful and seen as alternatives to the electric wheelchair. Nevertheless, they are designed for people who can walk, but who cannot travel long distances on foot due to problems in the knees or arthritis.

Old mobility scooterOld mobility scooter

Most of the mobility scooters today are more advanced, electric and with rechargeable batteries. The distance they can travel is variable, but some of them can go up to 60 km before recharging!

Modern mobility scooterModern mobility scooter, with rechargeable battery.

A growing concern for our wellbeing and that of our loved ones with reduced mobility has led to increased variety of mobility devices. We all want to enjoy life, with the same freedom and equal opportunities.

The revolution of Stairlifts

Some of the first stairlifts commercially produced were advertised and sold in the United States, in the 1920’s, by Inclinator Company of America. Many of the users at that time were victims of polio.

But historians found that there is a reference to a chair lift used by King Henry VIII (16th century). The King, who had fallen from a horse, used a giant chair that carried him down the stairs at his London residence, through a system of ropes.

In the 20th century, various companies were engaged in the construction of lift chairs, and Stannah was the first to manufacture them in the United Kingdom. Stannah stairlifts are still manufactured today in our new factory, located in Andover, United Kingdom.

Stairlift featured in “Witness for the Prosecution”, by Billy WilderStairlift featured in “Witness for the Prosecution”, by Billy Wilder, in 1957, based on the novel of Agatha Christie.

These chair lifts have revolutionized the way people with reduced mobility navigate through their houses, and stairs ceased to be an obstacle for them.

One of the first Stannah’s stairlifts modelOne of the first Stannah’s stairlifts model, in the 1970s.

Modern stairlifts, such as those from Stannah, have folding functions so they do not obstruct the stairs for other people who don’t need the stairlift.

Stannah, at the forefront of the stairlifts, with over 40 years of experienceStannah, at the forefront of the chairs, stairlifts, with over 40 years of experience.

There’s another mobility device we tend to forget, despite its outmost importance to our daily lives: the elevator!

Evolution of the elevator

Elevator with automatic doors, in hospitalElevator with automatic doors, in hospital

Every day, we use lifts or elevators, regardless of whether we have mobility issues. It just makes life easier for everyone!

Elevators have actually been around for a long time. The first time an elevator was mentioned was in the works of the Roman architect Vitruvius, who mentioned that Archimedes had built the first elevator around the year 236 B.C. This elevator was composed of a booth supported with ropes, hand-operated or driven by animals.

In the year 1000 C.E., as recorded in the book of the secrets of Ibn Khalaf al – Muradi (from Islamic Spain), we have a description of the use of an elevator as a lifting device, aiming to use it to hit or destroy a fortress.