Early Eames hand cranked wheelchairToday’s manual wheelchairs or modern wheelchairs as we like to call them all have a family tree.

When it comes to manual wheelchairs, the family tree is firmly rooted in the bicycle industry. Many of the early manufacturers of “modern” wheelchairs were or had been bicycle makers.

Here is a very cool old wheelchair from the Eames Tricycle Co. of San Francisco. It’s an early example of a chain driven lever/crank action wheelchair, sometimes referred to as a *Poirier type wheelchair. All muscle power, with some help from the chain system that looks suspiciously similar to something you might see on a bicycle.

This little sweetheart had some things going for it back in 1900. For one, it was powered. The independent lever drive and dual front wheels would make this set of wheels fairly responsive and the large wheels would certainly help with negotiating the crusty roads and obstacles of the day. The thick crossed spokes would have enabled the chair to take a heavy pounding without damage to the wheels. Generally, this wheelchair looks like it was built to last.

And then, it probably had a few things going against it. It was probably extremely heavy and you would be hard pressed to roll through the average doorway back then or even today. Let’s try and calculate the width of this wheelchair.
1. The proper gent is slender and would likely be 17″ across the hips with an inch or so extra on each side. So, seat width 19″.
2. Seat frame probably around 3″ total.
3. Hand crank and chain system with enough room for cranking might be 6″ on each side for a total of 12″.
4. Tires/wheels appear to be at least 2″ wide for a total of 4″.

If I’m anywhere near the mark the total width of this cruiser would be somewhere at or above 38″. Hey, go measure your doorways or better yet find an original Victorian house built in 1900 and measure those doorways. In either case you’re in trouble with doorways.

Now the cost on one of these. You got me, but let’s also try and work that out. Wood/whicker wheelchairs of the day ranged from about $30 to $90. Adult bicycles went for $14 to $45. This being a hybrid and technically upgraded it may have went for around $100+. Was that a good deal back then? Maybe, but it would have been 20% of the average working slobs yearly salary.

Heading out on the family tree limb, you can see what a few of grandpa’s descendants look like. Different? Yes, but you can certainly pick up on the family resemblance.



*Poirier: Early wheelchairs produced by ETG Poirier of France. They made models that were direct lever propelled and chain cranked. The wheelchair industry even today will sometimes classify a lever drive or one arm drive wheelchair as being a “Poirier” type. View example.


Ziggi Landsman
Director of Assistive Technology
United Spinal Association