ARCHIVED - NRC Helps Welcome Home a Great Canadian Innovation: Original Electric Wheelchair Returns to Ottawa

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October 05, 2005— Ottawa, Ontario

The Year of the Veteran is an appropriate time to welcome home the first successful electric wheelchair, invented by NRC alumnus George Klein. The chair, designed to assist veterans who were injured in the Second World War, has helped disabled people around the world regain independence.

On September 30, people gathered to see the Canadian innovation, to learn about its origins, and to attend the official launch of Klein's biography. Attendees celebrated the collaborative spirit that led to the invention of the motorized wheelchair. NRC's Dick Bourgeois-Doyle (also George Klein's biographer) was joined by Klein's family, NRC staff and alumni, science historians, and members of the general public.

Left to right: Steven Fletcher, Member of Parliament (Charleswood-St. James- Assiniboia) and NRC's Dick Bourgeois-Doyle next to the wheelchair exhibit.
Left to right: Steven Fletcher, Member of Parliament (Charleswood-St. James- Assiniboia) and NRC's Dick Bourgeois-Doyle next to the wheelchair exhibit.

Fifty years ago the Government of Canada presented the United States Veterans Administration with the prototype of the first working electric wheelchair for quadriplegic patients. This gesture was part of Canada's wider efforts to share the invention with other countries and to help disabled patients around the world achieve greater independence. Recently, that original chair, given to the U.S. Government on 26 October 1955 during an official ceremony in Ottawa, returned home to be displayed at the Canada Science and Technology Museum. Museum staff initiated negotiations to repatriate the chair, which has been called "Canada's great invention", when helping NRC's Dick Bourgeois-Doyle research the wheelchair project for last year's NRC Research Press biography of inventor George J. Klein. Efforts to bring the wheelchair home were supported by other organizations and media interest stimulated by the Klein biography.

George Klein's widow and NRC's Dick Bourgeois-Doyle proudly unveil the wheelchair
George Klein's widow and NRC's Dick Bourgeois-Doyle proudly unveil the wheelchair

In addition to NRC, Canada's Department of Veteran Affairs, the Canadian Paraplegic Association (CPA), medical practitioners and disabled veterans all played a role in the wheelchair's development. The influx of disabled World War II veterans drove the need to develop this unique device. Unlike in the First World War when 9 out of 10 victims of spinal cord trauma died from their injuries and related infections, during WWII the availability of penicillin meant that 9 out of every 10 Canadians survived such injuries to return home. This dramatic shift meant that Canadian families and hospitals were welcoming back many para- and quadriplegic veterans.

Before this time, manual wheelchairs were not considered to be assistive devices for individuals. A very limited number of wheelchairs were available to medical personnel for moving patients from one part of a ward to another, often "a hospital might have a handful of chairs to serve as many as a hundred patients".1 A paraplegic war veteran with powerful connections and founder of the CPA, John Counsell, promoted broader use of newer, lighter, more flexible wheelchairs and actively lobbied the Government of Canada. His efforts led to Canada being the first country to make a mass purchase of manual wheelchairs to help veterans resume more active lives. Although these chairs helped paraplegic veterans and were easier to use than their predecessors, the quadriplegic patients were still without means to move around independently.

From left to right: NRC colleagues, George Klein and Robert Owens, working on the prototype electric wheelchair in the early 1950s at NRC in Ottawa
From left to right: NRC colleagues, George Klein and Robert Owens, working on the prototype electric wheelchair in the early 1950s at NRC in Ottawa.

That's when NRC's inventive staff came onto the scene. NRC's George Klein is credited with dreaming up many of the key features and overall design for the motorized wheelchair. Previous attempts by other individuals and organizations had failed to result in safe or dependable solutions. The late Dr. Klein, together with his colleagues such as Robert Owens of Brockville, Ontario, participated in what is now recognized as a first of its kind collaboration between scientists, engineers, patients and doctors. This innovative team's efforts resulted not only in the invention of this motorized wheelchair, but their initiative has also been cited as perhaps one of the world's first examples of "rehabilitation engineering". During this important project, patients were true collaborators. They advised the designers about what they wanted and needed, they provided equipment as well as described the challenges that they faced.

Crowd gathers during Friday evening's exhibit opening and the NRC Research Press official book launch for George Klein: The Great Inventor.
Crowd gathers during Friday evening's exhibit opening and the NRC Research Press official book launch for George Klein: The Great Inventor.

Widely considered "one of the greatest artifacts in the history of Canadian science, engineering and invention"2, the chair received international acclaim for "its innovative controls, ease of operation, flexible drive system, and dependability".3 It is a true Canadian success story and a shining example of how science and technology can improve the lives of individuals globally.

NRC President Dr. Pierre Coulombe believes that announcing the chair's return to Canada is "exciting because of its potential to remind Canadians of their inherent inventiveness and capacity to work together for the benefit of people around the world."

Hats off to all who were involved in this project from discovery through to celebrating the return of this historically significant artifact!


Additional Links:

  1. Bourgeois-Doyle, Richard (Dick) I., George Klein: The Great Inventor, NRC Research Press, 2004., p.166.
  2. Canada Science and Technology Museum. Canada's 'Great Invention' Comes Home , 08 June 2005.
  3. Canada Science and Technology Museum. Canada's 'Great Invention' Comes Home , 08 June 2005.

Enquiries: Media relations
National Research Council of Canada
613-991-1431
media@nrc-cnrc.gc.ca

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