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The History of Standing Desks: A Journey from Da Vinci to Silicon Valley

6/26/2024 · Colin Zhang

 

 

Introduction

In our modern world, where sedentary lifestyles have become the norm, the concept of standing desks has gained significant traction. From corporate offices to home workstations, the idea of elevating our work experience by standing rather than sitting has captured the attention of health-conscious individuals and professionals alike. But have you ever wondered how this trend originated? How did we transition from Leonardo da Vinci's ingenious sketches to the bustling innovation hubs of Silicon Valley?

In this article, we embark on a fascinating journey through time, exploring the evolution of standing desks from their earliest roots to the present day. We'll delve into the origins and early history of the standing desks, uncovering the visionary minds who first recognized the potential benefits of working on your feet. We'll then navigate through the 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, examining the developments that propelled standing desks into the realm of practicality.

However, our exploration doesn't stop there. We’ll see the evolution of electric sit-to-stand desks. We'll also take a deep dive into the modern era, where standing desks have become more than just ergonomic workstations; they have become symbols of a health-conscious movement. With increasing concerns about the harmful effects of prolonged sitting on our physical well-being, the popularity of standing desks has skyrocketed. We'll investigate the history of height adjustable desk, and how the health and wellness movement has shaped the design and functionality of modern standing desks, turning them into indispensable tools for productivity and well-being.

Origins and Early History of Standing Desks

 
Source: Suite news

The origins and early history of the stand up desks trace their evolution from craft workshops and mills to the artistic endeavors of great minds like Leonardo da Vinci. The first stand up desks in history was likely used by artists and craftsmen in the Renaissance period. Craft workshops and mills, particularly during the Industrial Revolution, often incorporated standing workstations into their operations. Various industries probably had already recognized the benefits of working in an upright position. The desks used were often tall and narrow, with a slanted top. These early standing desks allowed workers to maintain an optimal posture, enhancing productivity and reducing strain on the body during labor-intensive tasks.

Earliest Mentions in Historical Texts:

 
Source: Freepik

 

One of the earliest mentions of a standing desk in historical texts comes from the 15th century. One notable mention is found in the works of the renowned Italian polymath Leonardo da Vinci. While best known for his artistic masterpieces, such as the Mona Lisa, Da Vinci also excelled in the realm of invention. It is believed that he designed and utilized a standing desk to support his creative endeavors. He believed that standing while he worked would help him to stay focused and productive.

Early Uses of Standing Desk:

One of the earliest uses of standing desk in history mentioned in historical texts comes from the 1400s.

 
Source: Biography.com

 

Leonardo da Vinci's employment of a standing desk was not limited to his artistic pursuits. While at his standing desk, da Vinci created some of his most famous works of art, including the Mona Lisa, and also came up with ideas for things like parachutes, flying machines, and armored cars. He found that standing allowed his ideas to flow more freely. His journals also reveal sketches and notes on engineering, anatomy, and other scientific studies, all of which were likely created at his standing desk. Da Vinci's commitment to innovation extended beyond his inventions; it permeated every aspect of his life, including his choice of work environment.

In addition to being utilized by one of the most well-known artists in history, the standing desk also had its debut in one of the oldest institutions in the world, the University of Cambridge, which was established in the year 1209. In 1626, it was documented for the first time that standing desks were used in the library. Stand up desks might also have been adopted at various departments and facilities within the university, especially in areas where individuals engage in long hours of desk-based work or research. The concept of writing while standing, at the same time, was placed at the forefront of intellectual thought.

Developments in the 17th Century

The concept of a standing desk can be traced back to ancient civilizations, where standing while working was a common practice. However, it was during the 17th century that notable advancements in the design and functionality of standing desks began to start. This era witnessed the fusion of practicality and aesthetics, giving rise to innovative solutions tailored to the needs of scholars, artists, and other professionals. In this era, professionals started designing standing desks according to their needs.

One notable development in the 17th century was the introduction of the Ambon and Lectern stand, which combined the functionality of a writing desk and a book stand. These stands were designed to cater to the needs of scholars, writers, and scribes who sought an efficient and comfortable workspace. They were also used in churches and lecture halls. It consisted of a raised platform with a slanted surface enabling individuals to read and write while standing. It also allowed lecturers and preachers to stand comfortably while delivering their speeches or sermons. The lectern desk's ability to accommodate different reading angles and provide a stable surface made it an invaluable tool for those engaged in scholarly pursuits.

 
Bureau Mazarin- Source: Wikipedia

 

Influenced by the French court during the reign of Louis XIV, the Bureau Mazarin was a remarkable standing desk that emerged in the late 17th century. Named after Cardinal Mazarin, who popularized its use, this desk was an intricate piece of furniture with multiple drawers, compartments, and a sloping writing surface. The Bureau Mazarin allowed users to stand while engaging in administrative tasks, providing them with a spacious and organized workspace. This elegant and functional design further enhanced the concept of standing while working.

Developments in the 18th Century

The development of the standing desk in the 18th century marked a significant turning point in the evolution of workstations. One of the earliest recorded instances of the standing desk's development can be attributed to Thomas Jefferson, the renowned American Founding Father and the third President of the United States. Known for his intellectual pursuits and multifaceted interests, Jefferson designed and utilized a height-adjustable writing desk that allowed him to work while standing.

 
Source: Canva

Perhaps he was the most well-known person to work at a standing desk. His "tall desk" consisted of six legs and featured an adjustable slanted top that was big enough to fit a folio on top of it. In order to create spectacular architectural drawings, he commissioned the Williamsburg cabinetmaker George Donald to complete the task. Jefferson utilized the desk to create outstanding architectural drawings for projects such as the Virginia State Capitol using the drafting tools available to him. There have been several heads of state who share Jefferson's preference for working at a standing desk.

Another notable contributor to the development of standing desks during this period was Benjamin Franklin, the most influential figure of the 18th century. Benjamin Franklin was an American polymath and an iconic figure in American history, renowned for his diverse accomplishments as a scientist, inventor, writer, and statesman. One of his lesser-known contributions was his pioneering use of a standing desk, a practice that had a profound impact on his daily routine and overall health.

 
Source: Canva

 

During his time as a printer, Franklin often found himself spending long hours seated at his desk, which took a toll on his body and led to discomfort and fatigue. Inspired by his observations of shipbuilders working upright, Franklin decided to design his own version of a standing desk.

He crafted a simple wooden platform elevated to a height that allowed him to work while standing comfortably. This new workstation provided numerous benefits to Franklin. Firstly, it encouraged better posture, preventing the slouching and back pain commonly associated with extended periods of sitting. Additionally, standing increased blood circulation, keeping his mind alert and his body energized throughout the day. Word of Franklin's innovative approach to work began to spread, attracting the attention of fellow intellectuals and professionals of the time.

The Popularity of Standing Desks and the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century:

 
Source: LinkedIn

 

In the 18th century, standing desks became more popular among the wealthy and elite. To claim that some of the most prolific philosophers, writers, and politicians of the 18th century truly did have their best ideas at stand up desks is not an exaggeration at all. As society experienced a surge of intellectual pursuits and a growing emphasis on productivity, individuals sought innovative solutions to enhance their work environments. Standing desks quickly gained traction among the elite and intellectual circles, becoming a symbol of both elegance and functionality.

However, the Industrial Revolution, which began in the late 18th century, brought about a fundamental shift in manufacturing processes and work environments. The Industrial Revolution led to the rise of desk jobs. With the rise of factories and mass production, the demand for standing desks increased. Factories required efficient workstations that allowed workers to stand while performing tasks, enhancing productivity and facilitating better supervision. Standing desks became an integral part of industrial workstations, revolutionizing manufacturing processes and providing a solid foundation for further developments in the years to come.

Moreover, the scientific community of the 18th century recognized the potential health benefits associated with standing desks. Medical professionals of the time believed that sitting for prolonged periods contributed to various ailments, including poor posture, circulatory issues, and reduced cognitive function. Standing desks were seen as a practical solution, promoting better posture, increased blood circulation, and improved mental acuity.

Developments in the 19th Century

The rapid growth of industrialization in the 19th century brought about new challenges and demands in the workplace. As factories and offices expanded, prolonged sitting became the norm, leading to health concerns such as poor circulation and back problems. In response, innovators sought ways to address these issues. During the early 19th century, inventors began experimenting with height-adjustable desks to accommodate different work preferences and postures.

As the benefits of standing while working became increasingly recognized, several prominent figures of the era embraced this innovative approach. One of the famous people to use stand up desk was Napoleon Bonaparte.  Napoleon, the renowned military and political leader of the 19th century preferred a standing desk to facilitate his work while strategizing and making critical decisions. Napoleon was known for his short stature, and he believed that standing helped him to appear more imposing. He also believed that standing helped to improve his circulation and concentration.

 
Source: britannica.com

 

Napoleon's standing desk was a reflection of his energetic and relentless nature. He believed that sitting down for extended periods hindered productivity and dampened his focus. During his reign, Napoleon would often spend long hours at his standing desk, meticulously reviewing military reports, issuing orders, and strategizing his next moves. His relentless dedication to work and attention to detail was instrumental in his military victories and administrative reforms. This endorsement from such a prominent figure contributed to the growing recognition of standing desks as a symbol of productivity and success.

 
Source: Canva

 

Another prominent figure of the era to use a standing desk was Charles Dickens. Charles Dickens is widely regarded as the most accomplished novelist to emerge from the Victorian era. The first line of the poem, "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times," is probably the most well-known part of the poem. His body of work includes so many great sellers that it would be inefficient to list them all here. A great number of people agree that he is one of the greatest authors who ever lived. Elizabeth Gaskell, a novelist from the 19th century, observed that Charles Dickens came up with the "gloriously vivid" cast of characters for his novel David Copperfield when he was working at his stand-up desk in his study. In the words of Elizabeth Gaskell: "books all round, up to the ceiling and down to the ground; a standing desk at which he writes; and all manner of comfortable, easy chairs."

Improvements in Design and Manufacture during the 19th Century:

 
Source: Fezibo

 

In the 19th century, advancements in design and manufacturing techniques propelled the evolution of standing desks. The standing desk began to take a modern shape in the early 1900s when Frank Lloyd Wright created the first practical height-adjustable desk in 1908. In addition, the first electric height-adjustable desk was created by Finnish designer Keijo Petaja in 1953. After this, adjustable height became a prominent feature, allowing users to customize their workstations according to their comfort and preferences.

Later around 2005, two engineers working at Google decided to build their own standing desks after suffering from back pain caused by sitting all day. They first created plywood and 24 prototypes before launching the desk manufacturing and distribution company named Varidesk. The demand for standing desks has only increased since then.

These innovations addressed the need for adaptability, accommodating individuals of different heights and tasks that required varying levels of workspace. The advent of adjustable-height desks improved ergonomics and led to increased efficiency in various industries, including manufacturing, drafting, and clerical work.

The Rise of Desk Jobs and Office Spaces in 19th Century:

As the 19th century progressed, desk jobs became more prevalent, leading to the proliferation of office spaces. Standing desks found their way into these work environments, providing employees with an alternative to sitting for extended periods. The health benefits associated with standing, such as improved circulation and reduced back pain, led to a growing preference for standing desks in office settings. Notably, Cambridge University library adopted standing desks to promote focused studying and productivity among students, further popularizing their use.

By the latter half of the 19th century, standing desks started gaining traction in commercial settings. They were found in offices, libraries, and various industries, proving particularly popular among clerks, writers, and telegraph operators. These professionals embraced the concept of working on their feet, believing it enhanced productivity and improved their overall well-being.

Developments in the 20th Century

The development of the standing desk in the 20th century witnessed significant advancements, reflecting the changing needs and understanding of ergonomics. As industries evolved and the negative impacts of prolonged sitting became more evident, innovative individuals sought to create solutions that would promote healthier work habits. This led to the emergence of standing desks as a practical and ergonomic alternative to traditional seated workstations.

Throughout the mid-20th century, standing desks continued to evolve with the advent of new materials and construction techniques. Industrial designers experimented with various materials such as steel, wood, and aluminum to create sturdy and functional standing workstations. These advancements not only improved the durability and stability of the desks but also contributed to their aesthetic appeal, making them more appealing to a broader range of users.

In the 1970s, the concept of ergonomic design gained significant traction. Ergonomics focuses on creating products and environments that maximize efficiency and minimize the risk of injury or discomfort. As the understanding of ergonomics increased, standing desks became a focal point for ergonomic research and development. Researchers conducted studies to determine the optimal height and angle for standing workstations, leading to the introduction of adjustable-angle platforms that catered to individual preferences.

The advent of the computer age in the late 20th century brought new challenges and opportunities for standing desks. With the increasing prevalence of desktop computers, designers started integrating ergonomic features specific to computer use. This led to the introduction of specialized keyboard and monitor platforms that could be adjusted independently, ensuring proper alignment and reducing strain on the neck, shoulders, and wrists.

Towards the end of the 20th century, standing desks gained recognition as an essential component of a healthy and productive workspace. As awareness grew about the detrimental effects of prolonged sitting, companies began to invest in ergonomic furniture, including standing desks, for their employees. This shift in attitude towards workplace wellness and ergonomics further fueled the development of innovative standing desk designs.

Maintaining Popularity in the 20th Century:

The early 20th century witnessed the continued popularity of standing desks, with notable figures championing their benefits. One such figure was Ernest Hemingway, the renowned American novelist and Nobel laureate. Hemingway, the winner of the Nobel and Pulitzer Prizes, is depicted primarily in his later years, typing away at a stand-up desk. Because of a leg disability, he sustained in World War I, he was encouraged to stand up and write by his editor at Scribner's. Hemingway's Cuban bedroom was described by George Plimpton in the Paris Review as follows: "It is on the top of one of these cluttered bookcases — the one against the wall by the east window and three feet or so from his bed — that Hemingway has his "work desk" — a square foot of cramped area hemmed in by books on one side and on the other by a newspaper-covered heap of papers, manuscripts, and pamphlets."

 
Source: Canva

 

Hemingway attributed his creative energy and focus to his standing desk, which he used during his prolific writing career. His endorsement of standing desks added to their allure and solidified their place in popular culture.

Another personality that contributed to the popularity of standing desks in the 20th century was Winston Churchill.

 
Source: Canva

 

Winston Churchill was a brave guy who worked tirelessly to defeat the Nazi regime and gain widespread acclaim for his efforts. He was also awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 for his work over the course of his career. He frequently used a standing desk to get his work done. Churchill is seen in a well-known photo smoking a cigar and studying paperwork at his stand-up desk. Perhaps he was crafting another of his legendary speeches that will be remembered for generations to come.

Many prominent personalities recognized the benefits of standing desks in their respective fields. Their adoption of standing workstations not only reflected their understanding of the potential health advantages but also highlighted the positive impact on productivity and creativity. Their choice to use standing desks further popularized the concept and contributed to its ongoing development throughout the 20th century and beyond.

Modern Standing Desks and the Health Consciousness Movement

 
Source: Fezibo

 

In the early 2000s, a growing awareness of the detrimental effects of sedentary lifestyles led to a resurgence in the use of standing desks. With the rise of the "sitting disease" and the mounting scientific evidence pointing to its adverse health consequences, standing desks have gained popularity as a practical solution for combating the sedentary nature of modern work environments.

The Sitting Disease and the Need for Change:

The advent of the digital age has brought with it a profound shift in the way we work. Jobs that were once physically demanding have now become predominantly sedentary, chaining people to their desks for prolonged periods. This sedentary lifestyle has given rise to a host of health problems, including obesity, cardiovascular disease, musculoskeletal disorders, and even an increased risk of premature death. Researchers have coined the term "sitting disease" to describe this alarming trend.

Scientific studies have unequivocally demonstrated the adverse health effects of excessive sitting. Prolonged sitting slows down metabolic rate, impairs blood circulation, and leads to muscle degeneration. In response to these findings, health professionals and ergonomic experts have sought solutions to break the cycle of inactivity and introduce more movement into daily routines. This is where standing desks enter the picture.

In 1797, Jon Orton, a Presbyterian clergyman, cautioned that a sedentary lifestyle could be harmful. Maintain as much of an upright posture as possible when reading and writing; never slouch or lean forward and invest in a standing desk to avoid this problem.

Scientific Research and the Benefits of Standing Desks:

The impact of standing desks on human health has been the subject of extensive scientific inquiry. Researchers have consistently found evidence supporting the positive effects of standing desks in reducing the risks associated with sedentary behavior.

An article published by the researchers of Stanford University, Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz in a 2014 publication, found that walking significantly influenced creativity. According to their findings, "the average increase in creative output was around 60%" when participants were allowed to roam around the lab rather than sit.

Another study revealed that alternating between sitting and standing throughout the workday resulted in reduced back and neck pain, improved mood and energy levels, and increased productivity. It has also been found that the use of standing desks led to significant reductions in blood sugar levels, lowering the risk of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Furthermore, standing desks promote better posture and engage core muscles, thereby reducing the strain on the spine and improving musculoskeletal health. They also encourage movement, allowing individuals to shift positions, stretch, and even engage in light physical activity, such as pacing or gentle exercises. These small movements can have a cumulative effect in burning calories and combating the negative consequences of a sedentary lifestyle.

Popularity and Adoption of Standing Desks:

As the health benefits of standing desks gained recognition, their popularity soared, particularly in innovative tech-driven workplaces like Silicon Valley. Workers in Silicon Valley are among the first to adopt standing workstations. According to a Wall Street Journal article titled "Standing Desks are on the Rise," some employees in Silicon Valley have opted to stand as they work. The American Cancer Society's warning about the health risks of sitting for long periods of time prompted them to take this action.

Many other Companies, such as Facebook and Google, known for their forward-thinking approach to employee well-being, also have championed the use of standing desks as part of their wellness initiatives. In Silicon Valley and other tech hubs, standing desks have become emblematic of a progressive work culture that values employee health and productivity. Start-up companies, in particular, have embraced the standing desk trend, often incorporating them into their office designs from the outset. Society for Human Resource Management statistics show a 33% increase in the use of standing workstations for work since 2014. This shift in workplace norms has not only improved the physical health of employees but has also fostered a sense of empowerment, engagement, and creativity.

Conclusion

The journey of standing desks, from their early origins to their widespread adoption in the modern era, has been nothing short of remarkable. Throughout history, visionaries like Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Jefferson recognized the potential benefits of working while standing, and their ideas have shaped the way we perceive and utilize ergonomic furniture today. The history of electric adjustable standing desks is closely intertwined with advancements in workplace wellness, promoting better posture and reducing the risks of sedentary behavior.

After a short history of stand up desks, if we look into the future, standing desks are poised to continue evolving and revolutionizing our workspaces. One can envision a world where electric standing desks become the norm, effortlessly adjusting to our preferred height with a simple touch of a button. This advancement will not only enhance convenience but also enable seamless transitions between sitting and standing positions throughout the day, promoting better posture and reducing the risks associated with prolonged sitting.

Furthermore, the integration of fitness equipment into standing desks presents an exciting opportunity for health-conscious individuals. Imagine typing away on your computer while pedaling on an integrated exercise bike or using resistance bands attached to your desk for light workouts. These innovations could help combat sedentary lifestyles, improve cardiovascular health, and boost productivity by combining physical activity with work.

The democratization of standing desks is another significant trend that we anticipate witnessing in the future. While in the past, standing desks were predominantly used by the wealthy or considered a quirky choice. The current market offers a wide range of adjustable standing desks at affordable prices. This accessibility has made standing desks available to almost anyone who desires a healthier and more ergonomic workspace.

As we move forward, it is crucial to recognize the long-term benefits of incorporating standing desks into our daily routines. Numerous studies have highlighted the advantages of standing, such as improved circulation, increased calorie burn, enhanced focus, and reduced back pain. By embracing this ergonomic furniture trend, individuals can proactively improve their overall well-being and productivity.

However, it is essential to strike a balance and avoid the misconception that standing all day is the ultimate solution. Just as excessive sitting is detrimental to our health, prolonged standing can also lead to discomfort and potential health issues. Therefore, it is advisable to alternate between sitting and standing throughout the day, utilizing the adjustability features of modern standing desks like the Fezibo Mid-Century Modern Electric Standing Desk to find the right balance for individual needs.

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