August is National Inventor Month, a time to celebrate the creative men and women who dare to think differently and bravely confront ridicule to bring solutions, ease, excitement and accessibility into our lives. Because we work with wheelchairs, scooters and other special needs equipment, we are devoting the month of August to uncovering the invention of key assist items.
Louis Braille did not really invent the Braille Alphabet. Rather it was a French soldier tasked with inventing a secret code for Napoleon, Charles Barbier, who created the raised and coded alphabet. In 1821, Barbier visited the school for blind children attended by Braille and brought his twelve-dot code with him. The code was too difficult for soldiers in Napoleon’s army to use; however, young Braille realized that it might work for blind children. By simplifying Barbier’s code and reducing it to six dots, Braille invented a reading system.
Our earliest ancestors are the true “inventors” of Sign Language. Man has always relied on hand signals to communicate. Monks living in enforced silence during the Middle Ages likely developed a “finger alphabet” for “finger spelling.” Illustrations of finger spelling are found in 10th century Latin Bibles. In 1920 Pablo de Bonet, a Frenchman, wrote a book that for the first time depicted the manual alphabet system, showing hand shapes representing different speech sounds. He invented the first “system” for Sign Language, not the first sign language. Humanity did that.
The first hearing devices were created in the 1500s. They were made of wood, shaped like the human ear and facilitated simple amplification. The first official patent for a hearing aide was issued in Britain in 1836 to Alphonsus William Webster for a curved earpiece worn on the ear. In 1880, R. G. Rhodes patented a device consisting of a piece of cardboard or thin, hard rubber that was placed against the teeth to help conduct sound to the auditory nerve. The device was very low-tech, and most data for inventors of the hearing aid do not include non-electric hearing devices. The first U.S. patent for an electric hearing aid went to Francis D. Clarke and M. G. Foster in 1880 for a device that amplified sound against the skull to transfer the vibrations to the inner ear. Meanwhile, hoping to help deaf children hear, Alexander Graham Bell was experimenting with conducing sound through electrical devices and invented the telephone. Bell’s work paved the way for others. In 1898, the Dictagraph company developed a hearing aid based on telephone design using a microphone to capture sound. Miller Reese Hutchinson, who was associated with Edison laboratories, is credited with inventing the first electrified hearing aid in 1901.
Special Needs Group had to go back to the Stone Age for the origins of one of our most frequently requested items, the wheelchair. Chairs and wheels are among mankind’s earliest inventions, so it was inevitable the two would be combined for transport. The first known blending of wheel and furniture was in 530 B.C. when the Greeks added wheels to a child’s bed. Chairs were next. Later, in China, in the third century, the locals were using wheelbarrows to transport the sick and disabled. The wheelbarrow was a great invention too—and one that hasn’t changed much!
There is some debate about who “invented” the modern wheelchair. Many attribute the invention to Stephen Farfler, a 22-year old paraplegic watch maker from Germany. Stephen constructed a wheeled chair that he could propel with his own power, eliminating the need for someone to push. Others give credit to John Dawson of Bath, England for inventing the first “modern” wheelchair in 1783. Dawson became a professional wheelchair maker and his invention, sporting two large wheels on the back with one small wheel on the front, was a top selling product in England during his lifetime. Quantum leap forward to today. Modern technology continues to drive ongoing innovations and improvements to the “rolling chair.” Durable and lightweight Sports Wheelchairs and our own Joy on the Beach (JoB) wheelchair have enabled individuals with special needs to play competitive sports, go on the sand and enjoy activities that may not have been possible.
Special Needs Group’s other most frequently requested item – the mobility scooter – was invented in 1968 in Bridgeport, Michigan by Allan Thieme. Thieme was personally motivated to create this product in order to help a family member diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Conceived and built in his own home, Thieme’s front wheel drive model initiated the entire “scooter” industry.
Beyond the mobility scooter, it may surprise you to hear that the inventor of the Segway, Dean Kamer, also invented the most advanced power wheelchair called the iBot. The iBot is an all terrain curb-conquering chair that even climbs stairs. Its unique design would also elevate the user to an “eye-level” position for conversation and social interaction. Unfortunately, insufficient demand (and perhaps the $26,000 price tag) forced this remarkable chair off the market. It would be good to see it reappear in the future.
The wheelchair and other special needs devices have developed dramatically throughout the ages, and with ever-evolving technology, hundreds of patents for new assist devices filed annually in the U.S. alone, there is much promise for enhanced freedom, mobility and independence in the future. To all the dreamers, designers, engineers, creators and inventors, we can’t wait to see what’s next.