Ernesto Blanco, mechanical design professor and inventor of the stair-climbing wheelchair, dies at 94

Ernesto E. Blanco, a renown inventor, mechanical designer, and beloved former professor in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering (MechE), passed away on March 21, in Murrieta, California. He was 94 years old.

Ernesto Blanco stands near a model of his invention, the stair climbing wheelchair, one of 150 inventions showcased in the museum. // MIT President Susan Hockfield and VIP's kick off the celebration of the institute's 150th anniversary with an event at the MIT Museum. Photo by Dominick Reuter

Over the span of a half-century, Blanco designed a number of groundbreaking devices that aided the handicapped — including the first stair-climbing wheelchair and an improved Braille typewriter.

Born in pre-revolutionary Cuba, Blanco began his career as chief draftsman of Havana's city planning department. In 1949, he left for the United States, where he earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Blanco briefly returned to Havana to lead the University of Villanueva’s mechanical engineering department. In 1960, after the Cuban Revolution, Blanco left every item he owned behind and fled to the United States under the guise of a vacation to visit his American-born wife’s family.

Within a week of arriving in the U.S., Blanco was offered an assistant professor position at MIT. In 1964, he temporarily left MIT and accepted a role on the faculty at Tufts University. Blanco then took a five-year hiatus from academia, acting as a textile technology consultant before founding his own company in 1974. However, it wasn’t long before he was back in lecture halls. He was invited by Professor Robert Mann to join MechE at MIT as an adjunct full professor in the Design Division in 1977.

During his nearly 38 years at MIT, Blanco developed a reputation as a consummate educator who treated every student, faculty, and staff member with the utmost care and respect. He emphasized creativity and analytical rigor in his courses. His compassion and consideration for everyone he encountered, along with his sartorial choices, earned him the affectionate title as “the man in the white lab coat.”

While teaching and inspiring new generations of engineers, Blanco continued to invent devices that improved the quality of life for the physically impaired. In addition to his stair-climbing wheelchair and Braille display, Blanco invented trocars for endoscopic procedures and ophthalmological surgical tools. Blanco demonstrated his forward thinking nature by helping to develop an interactive online program that captured mechanical design processes for future students. He also found time for fun in his work, co-inventing a pancake flipping robot. 

In 2002, during the final competition for MechE’s 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing) course, Blanco was honored for a quarter century of engagement with the class. After his retirement in 2007, he remained a regular attendee at the 2.007 and 2.009 (Product Engineering Processes) final presentations. He eventually moved to Temecula, California, where he could frequently be found in his home workshop or mentoring a local school’s robotics program.

Blanco is survived by son Ricardo and his wife Ana, son René, sister Dinorah, and beloved grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. He was preceded by his wife of 54 years Sonia, who passed away in 2007.