Are you sitting comfortably? Well, if you are then the man you have to thank is legendary pioneer Eric 'Damn Your Eyes' Blair. It's not widely known that before he invented a reliable and cost effective method of sitting down, everybody was forced to stand up.
Life must have been very hard indeed in the days before sitting down was invented, and we can only guess at how ordinary poor people managed to cope under such difficult circumstances. Indeed, it is a topic hotly debated by historians and antiquarians and many theories have been put forward. There is some evidence within the fossil record that our Neolithic forebears were accustomed to squatting on rocks and fallen tree trunks, though modern research indicates that they would only have been able to do this for short periods before their knees gave out.
Later civilisations came up with different solutions. Ancient Egyptians, for example, went to extraordinary lengths to construct the pyramids so that Pharaohs could lean against them. The Romans adopted a simpler approach with the invention of the 'hanging frame'. This was a box-like structure from which important Roman dignitaries could be suspended by their ankles for their own comfort and enjoyment. In this position they could be fed grapes by slaves, or be kept informed of crucial matters of politics and policy, whilst at the same time being freed of the tiresome and time-consuming business of standing up. Some of the more elaborate hanging frames employed a system of mirrors to afford a three hundred and sixty degree view of the surroundings, a chute for the delivery of wine and shellfish, and a modesty curtain to allow the occupant relieve himself in whatever manner was least inconvenient.
Sadly the secrets of the hanging frame were lost when the Roman Empire fell and, although there is evidence that some enterprising pioneers experimented with dangling from ropes, for many years it appeared that most people were content to just slouch about of an evening. In fact, it wasn't until Tudor times that crouching became fashionable, when it was deemed polite and proper to squat in the presence of your betters. And the more important your host, the longer the crouch would need to be maintained. There is a scene in Shakespeare's Henry VI, for example, where Bertold tells us he has crouched in the presence of his lord for 'fifteen days and as many nights, and e'er whilst the owl did hoot without, hoot, hoot'. Whilst this may have been an excellent device for Shaky to pad out his one of his lesser-known plays, it is doubtless an exaggeration. Nevertheless, we are informed that Sir Walter Raleigh once crouched in the presence of Queen Elizabeth for over eight hours. By the time his audience was over he was quite unable to move, and called for six burly men to carry him from Her Majesty's apartment. This trend for courtly crouching had a direct effect on traditional modes of attire, as men took to wearing ever larger and heavier codpieces, so that they could act as a counterweight.
On the subject of Royalty, our image of a sovereign seated upon an ornate throne is a relatively recent invention. The word 'throne' comes from the ancient Celtic word 'thouwn', which literally means 'plank'. The traditional thrones of old were precisely that - a simple, yet intricately carved plank of wood, against which the reigning monarch would lean during important official functions. Elizabeth I never sat down in her life, although there is compelling evidence to suggest that she occasionally employed an ingenious crutch-like device to prop up her buttocks during state banquets.
It would take a man like Eric 'Damn Your Eyes' Blair to change all that. To understand better what inspired him, it is best to look at his early life. He was born in 1894, in India, where his father was keeper of the Maharaja's stoats and his mother interfered with elephants. Life was fairly routine for the young Eric, until the day that a wandering fakir drifted into town. The fakir had travelled widely and had encountered much that was strange and fantastic. He gave the young Eric a glimpse of the most extraordinary things - things that made Eric's impressionable mind burst with wonder, but which the dirty fakir was always careful to put away again whenever anybody else came into the room.
One of the things that the fakir showed him was an ancient illustrated manuscript full of strange and mythical pornography. One of the illustrations really caught young Eric's imagination. It was on page 32, just after the diagram of the two men and the virgin, and before the one with the goat. It was a depiction of the God Shatner, and he was doing something of which Eric could simply not conceive. He was sitting down.
It was at that precise moment that Eric decided that he would dedicate the rest of his life to ensuring that no one had to stand up ever again.
But first there would be an upheaval in Eric's life. At the age of twelve he came to England after his parents traded him in for a new carpet. It was thought that Eric's familiarity with elephants would make him ideally suited for a circus life, and so a place was found for him at the Captain Bonzo Institute of Circustry, where he was to be trained as a performing seal. It was not a happy time. The ball balancing was a strain on his delicate nose and an allergy to wet fish caused numerous problems. Nevertheless, he graduated in 1908 and subsequently hit the road, appearing on circus bills up and down the country.
All this time he had never given up on his dream. When he wasn't performing he became quite reclusive and would never socialise with the other seals, preferring instead to lock himself away in his trailer and work on new ways of sitting down. His perseverance paid off and two years later he enjoyed his first success! Not, unfortunately, in the field of sitting down, but one that had its own rewards. A chance accident had led to him developing and patenting a revolutionary new aerodynamic blackboard eraser that was ideal for hurling at non-attentive schoolchildren. The invention provided him with enough income to enable him to set up a laboratory where he could work full time on the sitting down problem. His life changed overnight. Eric 'Damn Your Eyes' Blair no longer had to leap through hoops for anyone.
With the equipment at his disposal, the time available to him and a modest staff, it seemed that nothing now could come between Eric and his goal. Nothing, that is, save for the condemnation of his fellow scientists. They did not take kindly to this young upstart, this 'circus boy', and much criticism was made of his work. The most vocal of his detractors was the eminent engineer and rubber expert Sir H.P.G.F.K.L. Daker, who claimed that the whole notion was preposterous. If a man ever sat down, he proclaimed, his joints would be unable to bear the strain of rising up again, and the poor fellow would become locked in that position forever. Furthermore, it was his opinion that the act of becoming seated would compress the diaphragm, making it quite impossible to breathe. His scientific colleagues weren't the only ones who opposed Eric's work. The Church were equally outspoken. If God had meant mankind to sit down, they said, He would have given us hydraulic buttocks.
Ironically, Eric had already considered the notion of hydraulic buttocks, but had discarded the idea some years ago. He did experiment briefly with pneumatic thighs, but following an accident in which a faulty hose resulted in his assistant being propelled through the roof, concern for the continued structural integrity of the building prompted him to discontinue this avenue of research. This wasn't the only accident to dog his research: Eric himself suffered third degree bottom burns after one abortive attempt to sit down, and on another occasion he almost collapsed in on himself and had to be rescued by the fire brigade.
But he persisted, such was his determination, and ultimately he succeeded. On the 5th of March, 1928, at precisely 11.30 am, Eric's assistant, Lazlo Windchime-Monkeybush, became the first person in history to sit down. Eric 'Damn Your Eyes' Blair had finally done it - he had perfected a simple, easily duplicated method for human beings to sit down. It is testament to the quality of his research that this is the same method we still use today. And whilst this method may not have enjoyed a one hundred percent safety record over the years, recent developments in cushion design and knee technology mean that the risks are now greatly reduced. Actually, you stand a far greater chance of being struck by lightning than exploding in the act of sitting down. And that's an actual fact.
As for Eric 'Damn Your Eyes' Blair, he retired happy in the knowledge that his work had changed the world forever, leading to the development of space hoppers, the lavatory seat, and ultimately paving the way for the invention of 'the chair'. But that would be a different story...
Selections from Dr Bongo's dazzling literary career
An inflated slug is a happy slug
Guy Parker takes you for a ride
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