Limits of Innovation

Some histories trace the wheelchair to care for the wounded of the American Civil War, but the chair’s history goes back much further. In the 1500s Philip II of Spain used a chair set on small wheels because he suffered from gout. By the late 1700s rich invalids in England hired a “Bath chair” for the social season at the spa.

American inventor Thomas S. Minniss patented an improved running gear for the invalid chair in 1853. The chair’s user could steer while being pushed or independently propel the chair. Minniss suggested in his statement of claim that mounting a regular house chair on the wheeled platform would create “a cheap and efficient perambulator for the afflicted poor who will perhaps oftener need its assistance than the wealthy who can afford those of costlier structure.”

Patent drawings with expanded view of steering rod mechanism.

Letters Patent No. 9,708, “Invalid Carriage”, Thos. Minniss, May 10, 1853, United States Patent and Trademark Office.

In 1875 Joseph Roy of Montreal patented a mechanism that allowed a chair’s user to shift between upright and reclining without assistance. The overall design was a chair set on a platform which rolled on casters. It looks to have been a chair for indoor use.

Patent drawings showing mechanism for independently reclining the chair.

Letters Patent No 5,115, “chaise-couche-roy”, Joseph Roy, August 16, 1875, Canadian Intellectual Properties Office, Canadian Patents Database.

Women applied for patents improving the invalid chair in both Canada and the United States. Perhaps because they were the family caregivers, they improved how invalid chairs were used to feed, clean, and toilet invalids.

In 1877 Antonete Goldschmidt, of Preston (Cambridge), Ontario, claimed to improve the invalid chair with a removable commode seat for night use, a cushioned seat and adjustable back for daytime lounging and a table which slid on the arms. The chair’s rockers could be replaced with small castors but this gave minimal mobility.

Patent drawings showing mechanisms for converting from rocker to rolling invalid chair.

Letters Patent No 7,487, “Goldschmidt’s Invalids Chair and Lounge”, Antonete Marie Sophie Goldschmidt, August 17, 1877, Canadian Intellectual Properties Office, Canadian Patents Database.