All About the Electric Wheelchair

George Johann Klein invented the electric-powered wheelchair in the 1950s. Considered as the most productive Canadian inventor of the 20th century, his other notable inventions include the microsurgical staple gun, the ZEEP nuclear reactor, the Canadarm, and the Weasel all terrain vehicle. Klein was working for the National Research Council of Canada when he came up with the electric wheelchair which was meant for injured World War II veterans.

In 2005, the first successfully working electric wheelchair was welcomed back to Canada during the official launch of Klein’s biography in Ottawa. The chair had been given to the government of the United States in 1955 in a gesture to demonstrate the commitment of Canada to help disabled individuals all over the world. It is now displayed at the Canada Science and Technology Museum.

The electric wheelchair has been dubbed as Canada’s Great Invention. Its development was spurred by the influx of veterans of the Second World War who had become disabled by injuries sustained in battle. The concerted efforts of the National Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Paraplegic Association, and Canada’s Department of Veteran Affairs resulted in an electric motor propelled wheelchair that was actually useful.

Before the advent of this type of wheelchair, quadriplegics had no way to move around by themselves. A little earlier, Canadian Paraplegic Association founder John Counsel had successfully lobbied the Canadian Government for the mass purchase of manual wheelchairs. This helped paraplegic veterans but not quadriplegics. Dr. Klein, in collaboration with medical practitioners, patients, engineers, and scientists, then moved into the breach by originating the concept of the electronic wheelchair.

Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada on August 15, 1904, George Klein became an Officer of the Order of Canada in 1968 and was later inducted to the Canadian Science and Technology Museum Hall of Fame (in 1995) because of his work on the electric wheel chair and other noteworthy inventions. He died on November 4, 1992 in Ottawa at the age of 88 years.

His inventions, however, keep him alive in the memory of people all over the world, especially of those who are enjoying the independence and mobility that he made possible through the electric wheelchair. Today there are many adaptations of this kind of wheelchair, which has been customized to the different needs of individuals. Rear, centre, front wheel and four wheel drive variants are presently available.

Originally meant for quadriplegics and invalids who can not self-propel a manual wheelchair due to certain disabilities, the electric-powered wheelchair is now also prescribed for persons who have cardiovascular conditions. It can be designed for use indoors or outdoors, or for both. There are portable models and full featured “rehab” models. There are kinds that have on-board chargers while others have separate chargers.

The electric wheelchair is controlled by means of joysticks or other kinds of devices such as chin controls or puff/sip scanners. These controllers can regulate not only the chair’s speed and direction but also other functional movements, such as recline, tilt, seat elevation, and leg elevation, that make its occupant able to perform certain motions and activities that would not have been possible otherwise.


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