Swivel chairs are popular for their unparalleled ease of movement and state-of-the-art ergonomic features.
For these reasons, swivel chairs have become a ubiquitous element of office spaces. You might even have one at home! But where did this unique design come from?
In searching for this answer, we uncovered a story that’s as closely linked to the history of the United States of America as the Declaration of Independence itself.
Key Point: In this guide, we will take you through the amazing history of who invented the swivel chair and how it’s linked to America’s origin story.
An Invention of Necessity
The year was 1775. The United States was still one year away from declaring its independence from the British Empire.
Although Thomas Jefferson was only 33 years old, he had a very important task: drafting the United States Declaration of Independence — to be presented to the Second Continental Congress — and in doing so, change the course of history.
Up to that point, Thomas Jefferson’s only option for seating was the Windsor chair.
Maybe you’ve seen a Windsor chair on Antiques Roadshow, but in case you haven’t, here’s what you need to know about this vintage style of furniture:
- English-style Windsor chairs have a solid wooden seat, carved into a shallow dish or saddle shape for comfort.
- The legs and chair back are “round tenoned.”
In care you aren’t aware, round tenon is a woodworking technique in which individual parts of a piece of furniture are affixed to one another by fashioning a nub of sorts on one piece.
That piece is then inserted into a corresponding hole drilled into the other piece, securely connecting the two pieces together.
The legs and chairback of Windsors were attached to the seat in this fashion. What’s missing in a traditional Windsor? You guessed it. Mobility.
Takeaway: Windsor Chairs did not provide enough movement, particularly in cases where individuals would need to sit for long periods of time but address different people–such as in early congressional meetings.
A Symbol of Privilege
It’s notable that one of the most foundational documents in the history of human liberty was written by someone not sitting in a chair at all, not to mention the genesis for one of history’s most popular chair styles.
That’s because for most people sitting is, in fact, a relatively modern thing to do.
At one time, taking a seat was reserved only for those in power — hence the throne, the great-grandparent of every kind of chair, including the swivel chair.
The earliest depictions of rulers seated in chairs, called “representative seats,” date back to ancient Egypt. Sitting down remained a sign of privilege and power for the religious and secular ruling class up through the Middle Ages.
The Modernization of Sitting in Chairs
In the days of old–before the best office chairs were invented–only some esteemed professions made use of chairs.
The chair gained in popularity around the 16th century, paralleled by the rise of what were called “seated professions” — like lawyers, merchants, bookkeepers, and so on.
For example, financial ledgers from that time were quite long, often spreading across multiple tables. This necessitated another watershed moment in the history of chairs: wheels, usually casters of the type used at the time, which did not provide a very smooth ride.
Compared to modern swivel chairs, however, these chairs were far from comfortable.
Which brings us back to the Windsor chair, which was developed around this same time.
The Windsor chair lacked wheels, and was, in fact, quite uncomfortable, providing very little range of movement. That doesn’t sound like the best way to write something as important as the Declaration of Independence, now does it?
Thomas Jefferson, an experienced cabinet maker, noticed this, too, so he decided to do something about it.
Key Point: As far back as 1774, when Jefferson was in Philadelphia, he’d been trying to devise a way to add more comfort and mobility to the Windsor chair. It was time for him to take action.
Thomas Jefferson and the First Swivel Chair
Thomas Jefferson’s early swivel chair designs put an iron spindle between the top half and bottom parts of a traditional Windsor, allowing for full rotation on rollers borrowed from sash window pulleys.
Jefferson made some other modifications to his first swivel chair:
- Replacing the original legs with bamboo.
- Adding a writing surface, or “writing paddle,” to one arm of the chair.
Jefferson was, in fact, so taken with his new invention, he brought it back to his home, his Virginia plantation called Monticello, in 1776.
Since 1836, Jefferson’s swivel chair has been the possession of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia.
Since Jefferson, the rhythms of work further dictated the evolution of the chair, leading to the development of what’s now called the “proper” swivel chair.
Takeaway: Jefferson created the world’s first swivel chair prototype, complete with a spinning seat pan and a writing paddle attached to one arm of the chair.
The Rise of Office Work
With the rise of office work came even more changes to the swivel. Moving into the 19th century, workplaces became organized around the principle of “Taylorism,” which espoused the idea that all tasks had to be done in the most methodical and efficient way possible, with the tools needed to perform the job close at hand at all times.
Around the middle to late 19th century, another invention revolutionized work: the typewriter.
At this point, sitting gained primacy in the workplace. Office chairs at this time had the following characteristics:
- At least 3 feet
- Height-adjustable wooden seat
- Vertical backrest
Even though backrests of this era had some give, they still didn’t provide much back support, meaning sitting down for work was highly uncomfortable and led to all sorts of bad posture and back issues.
Takeaway: While the office chair began to evolve, it wasn’t until the 1950s that engineers, scientists, and designers began to take a closer look at the office chair and develop the concept of ergonomics that influences how we work to this very day.
The study of the best ergonomics found that chair design was closely linked to bad posture and back issues.
This new way of thinking posited that the workplace should adapt to the needs of the human body, not the other way around. Gone were the days off stiff seat backs, forcing posture into a rigid right angle.
Around this time other ergonomic features were added to the swivel chair, like adjustable seat height. With the advent of the computer came further developments in the principles of ergonomics, all aided by features common in the modern swivel chair.
For proper ergonomics, a computer should be kept at arm’s length away from the user with the top of the monitor level with their eyes.
Neck in a relaxed and neutral position
In addition to keeping your neck in a relaxed, neutral position, workers are advised to sit up straight and avoid slouching.
Your arms should be kept parallel to the floor at all times
Furthermore, feet should remain flat on the floor, and sitting cross-legged, for example, should be avoided as it tends to cut off circulation to the legs and feet.
Takeaway: These principles have all gone into the design of modern swivel chairs, making them more comfortable -— and healthier — than ever.
The Modern Swivel Chair
With all the technological advances and development of ergonomic principles integrated into today’s swivel chairs, it’s unlikely Thomas Jefferson would even recognize the swivel chairs of today.
Here are just a few of the defining characteristics of a modern office chair on the market, proving just how far we’ve come since the days of Jefferson.
Adjustable seat height is a universal feature in swivel chairs. Optimal seat height allows for feet to be placed flat on the floor, hence the adjustability. And since everyone is a different height, they need to be able to raise or lower their seat to obtain proper foot positioning.
Seat height ranging between 16 to 21 inches off the floor is optimal for most people. Furthermore, most desks aren’t height adjustable, though this feature is becoming more common. This makes variable seat height even more important.
Seat tilt is also adjustable in contemporary swivel chairs. This allows for a properly aligned pelvis.
An improperly aligned pelvis can lead anterior pelvic tilt — a common posture issue among those who sit a lot.
To help prevent this issue from occurring, adjustable seat tilt helps keep the pelvis in a neutral position, defined as an 80-degree angle at the hips, knees, and ankles.
Seat width and depth
The last seat-related feature in modern swivel chairs is variable seat width and depth.
A seat that’s too far forward puts undue pressure at the back of the knees. For proper seat depth, be sure to leave between two and four inches between the edge of the seat and the back of your knees.
From the seat, we now turn to the backrest.
Since everyone is a different shape and size, neutral spine alignment means different things to different people.
Hence the reclining backrest, which allows users the ability to adjust their seat until their spine is properly aligned.
Achieving neutral spine alignment with your backrest takes weight off the upper body as well as off the disks and muscles of the spine.
A chair with armrests reduces tension in the upper body, allowing the upper body to relax. What might at first seem like a paradox, though, is that armrests shouldn’t be used while typing.
This is because armrests actually limit the arm’s range of motion, which in turn increases wrist movement leading to strain on the muscles of the forearm.
The next important part of a modern swivel chair is the headrest. The headrest keeps the head and back of the neck in a proper, neutral position, minimizing pressure on the shoulders and upper body.
Additional considerations in a modern swivel chair include the materials from which the chair is made. That materials should be breathable, minimizing back sweat.
You’ll also want to pay extra attention to the wheels. For workspaces with floors that are smooth, some chairs feature soft rubber wheels. For carpeted work areas, chairs come with hard wheels for better navigation.
Conclusion: As you can see, the swivel chair has come a long way since the days of the American Revolution. And as work changed, so too did the swivel chair.