The electric, push button–operated reclining chair (as opposed to the plain old electric chair) is clearly one of the hallmarks of an advanced civilization. Some models of recliners should probably be sold by prescription only, so soporific can be the effect of yielding one's back and nether region to its welcoming embrace. I have often mused while relaxing in my own recliner that even if sitting be the new smoking—as it has lately been labeled by virtue of the deleterious effects of long-term butt parking—then splay on.
So it was in early March that while thusly ensconced I was surprised to come across an article about another kind of lounger, the ubiquitous Adirondack chair. One might expect to find such a piece in, say, Consumer Reports or Smithsonian. But what took me aback while almost lying on my back was that this write-up appeared in the publication JAMA Dermatology. What was it doing there, among the latest reports concerning seborrheic dermatitis, psoriasis and malignant melanoma?
Author Megan E. MacGillivray, a student at the Queen's University School of Medicine in Ontario (and surely a future academic department chair), explained that upstate New York Adirondack Mountains region resident Thomas Lee in 1903 “built a pine chair with a long sloping seat and wide armrests.” He intended to make a few for family use, but the design caught on.
Meanwhile nearby Saranac Lake had become a haven for tuberculosis patients who benefited from the clean air and sunlight. Ultraviolet light had recently been recognized as a killer of the bacterium that caused TB, which made sunlight effective as a treatment, for at least the cutaneous (and finally we arrive at the dermatology connection) form of the disease. The patients needed to sit in the sun—and the Adirondack chair became the standout choice.
This connection between seats and science got me curious enough to check the Scientific American archives for any page space we might have devoted to chairs. Turns out we have not been sitting down on the job.
For example, in 1906 we reported on the invention by one George Fentrick of a combination deck chair/life preserver. The chair's back was filled with cork. “The shipwrecked passenger need not worry about the proper adjustment of his life preserver,” we explained, “but may cling to his chair for support,” as he left his fellow swells onboard the cruise liner to confront the freezing swells of the North Atlantic. Based on my latest cruise experience, the proposed chair was a long-term bust, with life preservers and lifeboats still very much in fashion. Deck chair cushions may indeed float today, but the cork onboard cruise liners is under the command of the sommelier.
Even further back, in 1897, Scientific American noted the creation of “a rocking chair provided with an air-compressing device adapted to deliver a current of air for cooling the occupant of the chair, for sounding a music box or for any purpose for which compressed air may be applied.” Our article said that the inventor was one Charles Michaelson and not Rube Goldberg, who was only 14 years old at the time and probably still in his early better-mousetrap phase.
“Beneath the chair seat are two bellows, having the usual valves, and discharging into a receiver above,” we deadpanned. “As the chair rocks ... the air is forced into the receiver, from which a tube leads into a small compressed air reservoir at the top of the chair back, and in this reservoir is a passageway with reeds and adapted to be used as a music box.” We then added helpfully, “The music box is operated in the usual way.”
Like the deck chair/life raft, this device seems to have been consigned to history's furniture junk heap. But bad ideas persist: a quick Google search turns up, available for purchase today, an inflatable rocking chair with a built-in MP3 speaker, thus combining the worst qualities of the unfulfilled dreams of Messrs. Michaelson and Fentrick. Unlike Mr. Lee's Adirondack chair, this seat is not outstanding.