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Reinventing the wheel

A young Brit has just improved on a 5,500-year-old design

Reinventing the wheel

A London-based design studio might just have made the greatest advance in the technology of the wheel since its invention around 3500 BC.

Vitamins, a "design and invention studio" based in Shoreditch, has come up with a collapsible wheel that has been shortlisted for Design of the Year at London's Design Museum awards, which take place this month.

Vitamins' Duncan Fitzsimons first started working on the wheel while studying for a master's in industrial design engineering at London's Royal College of Art (RCA) in 2007. "I spoke to a lot of people who said it couldn't be done," he says, describing how the project - reinventing the wheel - turned into a bit of a joke in the college canteen.

As his efforts progressed, though, it became clear to Fitzsimons that the concept was not just doable but that it could also be extremely useful: "It struck me that this would be an interesting development in bikes, but a really exciting development in wheelchairs."

Until now, whenever they have flown, people in wheelchairs have had to store their chairs in the hold because the detachable wheels are too big to fit in overhead lockers. "I met a lot of people in wheelchairs who try to avoid flying or have completely stopped," says Fitzsimons.

It's not just planes. Disabled people have traditionally been confined to larger cars, too, because only bigger vehicles have space to fit bulky wheelchairs. "I've had people tell me that if they had a chair that took up less room they could buy a cool car, a sports car even," he grins.

The prototype was funded by a grant from fellow RCA graduate James Dyson, inventor of the cyclone vacuum cleaner. Christened the Morph Wheel, it is now in production. It's made of fibreglass-reinforced plastic and was developed in part by an engineering firm with a background in Formula One.

"Hundreds of people in wheelchairs have got in touch about it, to offer advice and say thanks," says Fitzsimons. "Just knowing that all those people are out there waiting for it, all over the world, is really nice."

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