Hotchkiss '69 is talking fervently about metal rods and rubber tires.
"We have an axle that's more than twice as strong as the axle
on an American hospital chair," he explains. "It's much
thicker: five-eighths of an inch instead of seven-sixteenths or
half of an inch."
The figures, coming from this calm and quiet
man, resonate with the conviction of a sermon. Suddenly, he rocks
violently back and forth in his wheelchair. Its wheels lift repeatedly
off the floor, crashing as they pound back down, until he looks
alarmingly close to toppling over or throwing himself across the
room. But after a moment he stops--a bit winded--and smiles. "There's
just no way you can break this chair," he murmurs.
Hotchkiss has spent two-plus decades devoted
to the ideal of the unbreakable wheelchair, and his designs have
made their way into more than 30 countries. His company, Whirlwind
Wheelchair International, has helped establish wheelchair shops
in third world nations from Bolivia to Zimbabwe--areas with rough
terrain where dependable infrastructure for people with disabilities
is a dream. Riders put Whirlwind chairs through their paces every
day in some of the least-wheelchair friendly and least-developed
corners of the world, not to mention Hotchkiss' own high-tech lab
and workshop at San Francisco State University.
"Twenty-some thousand" of the chairs
are in daily use around the globe, Hotchkiss says, and "most
of them stand up very well." But Whirlwind's latest venture
presents new a challenge, what he calls "the rubble of Afghanistan."
Responding to a surge in demand for wheelchairs in the wake of the
recent war, the team hopes to design a chair that can be constructed
repaired--easily and inexpensively--in the same
region in which it's used. Maneuverability is a big priority.
"In Afghanistan, it's so hilly, so rocky, that high stability
is necessary," Hotchkiss says. "Wheelchairs are normally
very tippy: the center of gravity is 26 inches high. Apply that
ratio to an Oldsmobile and you have a car that is three stories
tall with the same wheel base. So we're trying to make our chair
as stable as possible without making it any longer--it still has
to fit in the outhouse."
Emerging from this busy shop are prototypes
that include an extended track length (increased distance between
the front and back wheels) and a "wheelie bar" that supports
the chair up steep inclines. Innovations from previous Whirlwind
designs are here too: bearings made from nails and frames made from
restaurant chair tubing.
Halfway through his years at Oberlin, Hotchkiss
became paraplegic following a motorcycle accident. In those days,
the Oberlin campus wasn't exactly inviting for someone who couldn't
walk. Right out of the hospital, he began tinkering with his wheelchair
and soon was motoring up and down stairs in a self-designed electric
caterpillar. "One Halloween I came rolling down the stairs
into the Harkness basement dressed as a Vietnam tank--my friends
did not appreciate my costume at all." He pauses and smiles
wryly. "I think it was the smoke coming out of the barrel that
bothered them the most." Now, with our country in wartime once
more, Hotchkiss is dreaming up new wheelchairs. This time, they're
destined for Kabul, not Kettering, but their creator approaches
their design with the same ingenuity that he brought to Oberlin
some 30 years ago.
-- Noah Miller '00