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Hotchkiss' da Vinci spirit recognized

October 14, 2003

Photo of Ralf Hotchkiss working on a wheelchairRalf Hotchkiss, co-founder and technical director of Whirlwind Wheelchair International (WWI) at the School of Engineering, won the "Spirit of da Vinci" award given by the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, Michigan Chapter, and the Engineering Society of Detroit last month. The "da Vinci" awards recognize select individuals, organizations and corporations in engineering and construction whose design and innovation exceed any legally mandated requirements to further empower all people.

Hotchkiss, who has taught at the University since 1987, won the "Spirit of da Vinci" award because of his work at WWI designing and building light, sturdy wheelchairs that are strong enough to handle the often rough and uneven terrain in developing countries.

Drawing on skills in bicycle design and production acquired in his youth and his educational background in engineering, Hotchkiss began his quest of building better wheelchairs soon after the motorcycle accident that took the use of his legs. After talking to three young men who shared a single wheelchair during a 1980 visit to Nicaragua, Hotchkiss turned his focus to designing durable and affordable wheelchairs for those in developing countries.

"At the time, I was using a motorized chair that was beginning to have some problems. They approached me and right away pinpointed the major trouble spots of my chair," said Hotchkiss. "I was impressed with them. They knew more about wheelchair design and repair than did many wheelchair designers in the United States at the time."

After this encounter, Hotchkiss began to work collaboratively with the youth and other Nicaraguan wheelchair users, learning from them how they had improved on the design of their obsolete, "hand-me-down" chairs and made them stronger and more durable. Hotchkiss in turn shared with them his vast design experience, and together they began to create a cooperative model of sharing design knowledge and best building practices and techniques that WWI has taken to a total of 45 countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

Through WWI, today Hotchkiss not only designs these wheelchairs but also teaches people in developing countries how to build them and produce them economically using locally available materials.

Hotchkiss is pleased that he won the "Spirit of da Vinci" award because he feels it will inspire new generations.

"This award is spurring engineering and industrial design students to develop new technology that benefits disabled persons," he said.

In 1989, Hotchkiss was honored with a prestigious, "genius award" from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The $260,000 fellowship funded WWI for the subsequent five years and helped Hotchkiss and his team expand their efforts in developing countries.

Hotchkiss has recently partnered with a Norwegian wheelchair company to create new wheelchair models and tools that will then be delivered to WWI shops worldwide so that chairs can be manufactured locally. This will speed up the delivery of good wheelchairs to those who need them in developing nations, said Hotchkiss.

-- Ellen Griffin with Public Affairs Student Writer Javier Jimenez


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Last modified October 14, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs