Alumni Notes


Riding Smooth

Ralf 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 and

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


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