Engineering for Power – the Kline Chair

The story of the “Kline Chair” is told as a story of Canadian engineering. It is also about the problem of commercializing a chair in the small Canadian market—especially if the decision-maker believes only a few people with quadriplegia need it. Yet the desire to equip wheelchairs with power goes back to the beginnings of the twentieth century. After all, invalids in 1900 wanted the same modern technology as everyone else.

<p class="p1">Patent drawings of a wood and rattan three-wheeled wheelchair with a motor on a platform under the seat.</p>

Letters Patent No 81,594, “Invalid Chair”, Ida Wilhelmine Schmidt, January 22, 1902, Canadian Intellectual Properties Office, Canadian Patents Database.

Ida Schmidt's 1903 design, like the horseless carriage of the same period, simply imagined the old form with a new power source. The canopy suggests it was intended to be an outdoor chair.

Front and side of Klein power chair prototype and close-up of the battery pack.

Electric wheelchair prototype built by Dr. George Klein, National Research Council, Canada, 1950, National Museum of American History (on loan to Canada Science and Technology Museum).

n 1950, the Canadian Department of Veterans Affairs asked George Klein at the National Research Council to improve the motorized wheelchair for quadriplegic veterans. Klein redesigned an existing wheelchair motor for use on an Everest and Jennings chair. He added a joystick for steering and for moving both forward and back. This made it useful for anyone with limited upper body movement. Klein worked with quadriplegic veterans in DVA hospitals in developing his design.

George Klein and a colleague working on the prototype Kline chair

George Klein, right, working on his redesigned electric drive at the National Research Council. Photograph courtesy of the NRC.

First two pages of Klein's report on the motorized wheelchair.

First and second page of the Report dated December 29, 1953 on the Prototype electric motor written by George Klein of the National Research Council of Canada for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Klein chose not to patent his innovation so it would be widely available. In 1955 Canada’s Veterans Affairs gave this prototype to the United States Veterans Administration for companies to commercialize. DVA assumed a limited Canadian market, seeing it as a solution for quadriplegia. Yet there was a larger market. In 1959 DVA directed a father asking about a motorized wheelchair for his son with muscular dystrophy to American companies but said the chairs were only for inside institutional use.