The Long (and Famous) History of the Stand Up Desk

The maxim “Don’t reinvent the wheel” speaks to the fact that people are constantly in pursuit of the most efficient tool or method. However, more often than not, the most efficient solution already exists—just waiting to be used.

Although the stand up desk is often treated as a new fad—the stuff of hipsters and techies—it is a tried and tested tool with a long track record of proven success. The recent boom in the standing desk’s popularity is not reinventing so much as rediscovering the wheel.

The list of standing desk users reads as a veritable “who’s who” of historical and literary significance. Here is just a snapshot of the people who leveraged the standing desk’s benefits throughout history.

1400—1500s: Da Vinci’s Favorite Tool

Da Vinci

Although no individual can be named as the inventor of the standing desk, Leonardo da Vinci is perhaps its earliest known user. Are you familiar with a half-smiling painting entitled the Mona Lisa (i.e., “the best known, most visited, most written about, most sung about, most parodied work of art in the world”)? Da Vinci painted it while he stood at his standing desk.

Da Vinci also stood at his desk while sketching new inventions, including parachutes, flying machines, and armored vehicles. Although there’s no record of Da Vinci attributing his success to his standing desk, the finished products certainly speak for themselves.

1600—1700s: Colleges, Presidents, and Dictators

Napoleon_and_Jefferson_standing_desks

In addition to being used by one of the greatest artists ever known, the standing desk also made its appearance in one of the world’s oldest colleges, the University of Cambridge (founded in 1209). Standing desks were first recorded as being used in the library in 1626, and the idea of writing while standing was placed at the epicenter of intellectual thought.

The mental and creative advantages of standing while working traveled from England to France, where Napoléon Bonaparte took up the standing desk and found it conducive to quick thinking and strategizing for battle. He used his heightened cognitive abilities to create tactical advantages.

On the other side of the ocean, Thomas Jefferson also used the standing desk while composing documents, such as the Declaration of Independence. He, however, was not content with his desk being stuck in one position, so he developed a six-legged adjustable standing desk—one of the first known people to use an adjustable standing desk. We’d like to think we’ve improved on his model.

1800—1900s: Writing Great Novels and Winning World Wars

Hemingway_Dickens_Churchill_standing_desksThrough the centuries, the use of the standing desk continued to grow, even making an appearance in the office of Charles Dickens. His workspace was described as having “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.” The standing desk, no doubt, aided the creative process and helped Dickens pen such timeless classics as Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, and A Tale of Two Cities.

As time passed, the standing desk gained popularity for more than just its creative benefits. For example, in an 1850 book by George N. Comer, he wrote, “I would not, by any means, proscribe the use of the sitting-desk, but recommend the learner to practise, as much as possible, in a standing position; first, because nine-tenths of the business writing is done at standing-desks […], and second because I am satisfied, from long experience and observation, that it is the best position to adopt, both for rapid, continuous writing and health.” The standing desk was gaining traction as a tool for efficiency and health.

In the 1900s, the stand up desk remained a hallmark of great world influencers. Winston Churchill was often seen writing at his standing desk. Ernest Hemingway’s desk was of the DIY style; amidst the chaos of his office he created “a stand up work place […] fashioned out of a bookcase near his bed.” In his defense, electric stand up desks were not yet invented.

The standing desk began to grow in commercial popularity, with appearances, including the “Hi-Lo Desk Attachment,” a standing addition for roll top desks, in catalogues such as Sears Roebuck and Commercial America.

2000s: Battling the Sedentary Life

With such historical titans standing before us in the pages of history, one would hope that humanity would have widely adopted the standing desk sooner. Unfortunately, the widespread use did not occur until science showed us it was a matter of life and death. In 2010, doctors and researchers across the world connected prolonged sitting to the risk of diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and cancer. The threat was called “sitting disease.” Since nearly 70 percent of people spend six or more hours a day sitting, a sedentary lifestyle has been recognized as being more lethal than smoking—and affects nearly everyone. Many have determined to abandon their sedentary life by using a stand up desk, and the advantages are overwhelming.

With such a prodigious history, it’s a wonder many didn’t adopt stand up desks sooner, but another simple maxim reminds us—it’s better late than never. So don’t delay another day! Join the likes of Da Vinci, Dickens, Jefferson, and Churchill. Fight against the dangers of “sitting disease” and enjoy the physical and psychological advantages of a standing desk today.