The oldest known European visual representation of a wheelchair comes from a woodcut by Hans Weiditz. It is dated 1531 and was published in Augsburg, Bavaria (now in modern Germany).
Next came Stephan Farfler's self-propelled chair (for a person with paraplegia), in about 1655. Stephan Farfler (1633-1689) a clock-maker, built his mobility aid when he was about 22 years old and used it probably until his death. An engraving from 1730 shows him, in his fifties, sitting in his vehicle. In 1693 the vehicle went to the Municipal Library in Nuremberg, where it became the victim of bombs in January 1945.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) was the first writer to include a reference to a wheelchair user in his play Faust Part 2 (1832). Unfortunately he represented the devil as the wheelchair user in question. Depicting disabled people as 'baddies' simply because they have a physical impairment or disfigurement is a stereotype that continues to this day in James Bond type movies and sadly feeds hate crimes that kill people.
The first recorded use of a wheelchair in England was in 1662, when John Evelyn (1620-1706) a diarist and an acquaintance of the famous Samuel Pepys, commented in his own diary on Lord Aubignie's "wheele-chaire".
John Evelyn, recorded in his entry of 11th of January,1662 that:
"I dined this day at Arundell-house, where I heard excellent Musique, perform'd by the ablest Masters both French & Eng, on Theorba, Viols, Organs & Voices as an Exercise against the comming of the Queene, as purposly composd for her chapell &c: After which my Lord Aubignie (her Majesties Almoner to be) shewed us his elegant Lodging; & his wheele-chaire for Ease & motion, with divers other Curiosities,......."
The inventor John Joseph Merlin,,was born in Huys near Liege, Belgium in 1735. Merlin arrived in England at the age of 25. He was a watch & clock maker by profession and also a mechanical genius. 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. What was new is that each propelling wheel had a smaller wheel attached so that the wheelchair user did not get dog excrement, etc. on their hands. 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.
The Oxford English Dictionary records that the first actual spelling of the word "wheel-chair" was made in a private letter by Jane Austen (1775 - 1817) which was only published in 1952.
The great novelist wrote:
I am to.. be promoted to a wheel-chair as the weather serves."
Throughout the 19th century and even into the early 20th century wheelchairs were hired or purchased from furniture shops. It was not until after the Second World War, and the introduction of a National Health Service in the UK that manual wheelchairs were provided on a basis of physical need.
British Railways (BR) 'Guard's van': photographs taken in the late 1980's.
Soundtrack by Keith Armstrong The full soundtrack can be heard in stereo at: soundcloud.com/user8580052/keith-armstrong-travelling
Early 19th Century bicycles vimeo.com/76308242