The Office Chair

When was the ball point pen invented? What about paper clips, or fax machines? Vic Hollefruend, our Retail Furniture Manager, is on the case, researching and compiling everything you would want to know about who, where, why, when, and how of office supplies. We are pleased to present Vic’s History of Office Stuff.

Evolving a Better Chair

Who among us is unable to conjure up a mental image when we say the words “office chair”? Pretty much everyone knows it is a type of chair that is designed for use at a desk in an office. It is usually adjustable and has a set of wheels called casters. But did you know that office chairs were developed around the mid-19th century as more workers began to spend their shifts sitting at a desk? This led to the adoption of several features not found on other chairs.

Antique chairIt is said that one of the earliest known innovators to have created the modern office chair was naturalist Charles Darwin, who put wheels on the chair in his study so he could get to his specimens more quickly (If he had waited a few million years, it would have evolved its own wheels).

Originally, office chairs were fixed in height and not very mobile. When you think about it, most work back then was not truly sedentary; plus, in ages past, most workers of the day were of uniform height and weight, so chairs could be built for an average size person in any given country and they would work well for the masses.

However, as other newfangled stuff found its way into the modern office, it began to affect the way we sat and did our jobs. With the advent of the typewriter, early dictation machines and the telephone, for example; office workers began spending more time at their desk. This led to the creation of desks and filing systems that led to the need for a chair with greater mobility. The first two types of mobility appearing on chairs, were wheels/casters so the chair could be moved around the workspace, and secondly, a center support column that allowed the worker in the chair to pivot freely. And whaddya know? We began to confine workers more and more to their desks and workspace. (Who needs a ball and chain?)

Technology Changes Everything

Soon, the computer began to move into the office and productivity experts began to notice that they could increase the output of workers with improved support from a chair, which led to the development of office chairs with significantly more adjustability. The first new feature to be offered was adjustable seat height. This meant that the chairs would work for a much broader range of body sizes. The height adjustment was accomplished by replacing the center support column with a threaded steel center post. The user could spin the seat and adjust the height, much like the piano stools of years gone by. Of course, this created a problem for users who pivoted regularly at their desk. A chair with both casters and the threaded column typically ended up lower as the day wore on.

However, the invention of the gas lift solved that issue and it meant a chair could instantly adjust seat height at the touch of a button. It also allowed 360 degree rotation without changing the seat height. Another perk was that it softened the blow a bit when the worker plunked down onto the chair a little bit too heavily.


The Immoral Chair

Ergonomics started coming to the workplace early, but was stalled a bit for the oddest of reasons. In 1851, Thomas E. Warren’s Centripetal Spring Armchair, one of the most revolutionary models of the time, made its debut at the Great Exhibition in London. This wasn’t your boss’s hand-me-down. It was a cast-iron and velvet chair that could swivel and tilt in any direction. It had just about every feature that modern office chairs have today, with the exception of adjustable lumbar support. However, international reaction to the chair was negative. It seems it was so comfortable that people deemed it immoral. Prevailing thought in the Victorian era was that upright posture on a rigid, unsupportive seat provided an opportunity to demonstrate refinement and willpower and thereby morality. (Think about that the next time you plop your derriere into a double layer hi-density memory foam chair!!)

We are all guilty of wanting a little more cush for our tush…who’d a thought we were all so immoral?

But I digress; anyway as the years rolled on, more and more manufacturers began to see the benefits of great support and even commissioned studies showing that when the body is properly supported there is an increase in productivity.

No wonder ergonomics caught on!

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