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George Klein and the Electric Wheelchair

Aug 6, 2008
Wheelchairs have been used for many thousands of years, but up until the 20th century, they were generally only available to the privileged and upper class. Today many people use electric wheelchairs, but they are a relatively new invention that is usually attributed to George J. Klein.

As is often the case with humankind, it was war that helped change the way the wheelchair was built and used. With the use of antibiotics like penicillin and improved medical techniques, many soldiers survived World War II with severe injuries that would have previously resulted in death. This left a large group of people disabled and living a relatively normal lifespan.

Prior to World War II most injuries that resulted in extensive amputation or paralysis were usually fatal. This was in large part due to things like urinary tract infections and bed sores, which could not be controlled.

During World War I, only 20% of American and Canadian soldiers that received spinal cord injuries would survive and return home for any extended period of time. During World War II, almost 90% of similarly wounded soldiers would survive and return home.

While there were more surviving paraplegic veterans, in many ways the hospitals and medical profession was slow to adapt. Wheelchairs were still seen as a tool for hospital staff and in many cases there might only be a few wheelchairs available for an entire hospital.

In 1930 a lightweight folding wheelchair that used tubular steel and mechanical components was developed. This new wheelchair was easy to use and it could also be stored in a vehicle easily. This new design represented the first steps forward in wheelchair history in many hundreds of years.

The chair was developed by two Americans named Harry Jennings and Herbert Everest. Everest had been paralyzed in a mining accident and had been using a heavy wooden block like wheelchair for over 10 years. His neighbor, Jennings, saw the restrictions that Everest faced and decided to take action. Together they built the first folding steel tube wheelchair which would, and continues to, greatly improve the lives of many millions of people across the world.

The company that Everest and Jennings founded, E&J, took off during the early 1940's due to the war. Some people began fitting electric motors to the chair and a firm in Chicago offered motors that attached to the E&J chairs. While it was a very innovative concept, these motors did not last for long and were very prone to mechanical failure.

After trying many of the drive systems that were commercially available, the Canadian government asked George J. Klein to create a reliable and durable system. Klein began working on his own electric control system for the E&J chair in 1950.

Klein felt that since the E&J chair could be easily and efficiently reproduced that it would be a disservice to his government and those who would use his chair to not use it. After several years of testing Klein revealed his electric propulsion system which would completely revolutionize the wheelchair. Many of his innovations, including the joystick control, can still be seen in today's power chairs.

By 1955 the popularity of the chair had grown in both the US and Canada. It was used by veterans and civilians alike. To help with the production and improve publicity, Canada allowed the US to begin manufacturing the system.

One of the greatest things about the Klein chair was that other people continued to work on improving the design and functionality of the unit even after Klein himself had moved onto other projects. Klein's chair had originally been designed with hand controls that assumed the user would have some free movement in their hand. Obviously this would not work for everyone and so frequently hospital workers constructed alternate control methods for their patients. At the time perhaps the most innovative control system involved a switch that could be mounted against a patient's cheek that allowed the chair to be controlled with head movements.

The electric power wheelchair has come a long way since it was developed and refined by George Klein, but they owe much of their heritage to this Canadian inventor.
About the Author
Steve Wynler has had experience using many types of electric wheelchairs. If you are interested in a power chair or would like to learn about other types of medical equipment like mobility scooters , visit US Medical Supplies.
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