A four hundred year old guide to ergonomics that still rings true today

Changes to the nature of work, where it takes place and the things we use to complete it are always constrained by one particular eternally fixed element; the human being. The unchanging individual at the centre of it all is the thing that makes us return to old ideas time and again and ensures that whatever we do, something like it will have been done before in some way or other. That goes for products like the office cubicle as well as apparently modern principles such as ergonomics. The term ergonomic may have been coined as recently as the 1950s and we might associate it primarily with the ways in which we use computers, but the ideas behind it have always been with us since we started using tools. Looking back, what we learn is that people have been writing guides to good ergonomics at least since the early seventeenth Century.

In 1602, Jehan de Beau-Chesne created the above woodcut illustration which was later published as part of a book in 1611 in conjunction with Iohn Baildon as “A booke containing diuers sortes of hands”. This is available online at the Folger Shakespeare Library archive. The 1611 treatise laid out rules not only on how to use and hold pens but even how to sit while using them.

“Place not your elbowe too close to your bodie, nor too farre of from it, but in a comely and easie manner may both your armes before you, as it shall best be seeme you, and as it shall be most easie for you, the better to endure to. Place your body right forward, as it shall be most seemly and easie for you: and tourne not you head too much aside, nor bed it downe too lowe, for auoyding of wearines and paine: and for such as haue occasion to sit long, I would wish them to sit soft, for their better enduring to write.”

Considering that advice is over 400 years old, it’s still sound. But then again, while the pens and paper may have been replaced by phones, laptops and tablets, the people using them haven’t changed at all.