The Invention of the Folding Chair

When I was 8 years old, my mother, a retired teacher, let me in on a family secret. “Your great uncle, Tobias Miller, invented the folding chair.” She stuck to her story until the day she died.

I grew up knowing that the DNA of such a transformative, utilitarian, stack-able idea was coursing through my veins. Inside of me, imagine that—a snazzy suitcase filled with sketches and plans!

I came to believe that the story was apocryphal, at best.  I finally settled on the fact that Tobias Miller did not invent the folding chair. No matter. By the time I was fifteen, the inventor had taken up permanent residence in my adolescent psyche’s furnished room.

I flaunted this quirky accessory, like glasses with clear glass frames, and even used it to convince a girl named Dee Dee, an ample tenth grader, to accompany me at a summer-camp hayride so that I could tell her all about it. I learned quickly that this was neither a great plan nor an effective pick-up line.

Somehow, though, the story has stayed with me, and I believe that my mother kept telling me that story to encourage me through school because I didn’t do well. I’ll admit to skipping out from time to time to attend an anti-war march or a rare week-day Dodgers day games and made some disparaging comments comparing our livestock-herding cafeteria line and the classroom, I studied. I just didn’t really get it.

At the same time, the “I was distracted in a dull school” badge of honor can be a bit too facile. While I do believe ADHD is quite real and should be treated with respect, I don’t ascribe to grand conspiracy theories that blame teachers and “the system.” Teachers are demonized far too much, and my teachers were decent people.

I believe that the Tobias story was a pep talk, allegory, or Aesop Fable designed to make me feel better. Something to mull over and pull out, from time to time, like an extra ten-dollar bill, just in case I found myself in a rough spot.

Lately, I’ve been doing just that—mulling over the meaning of the folding chair.

The concept itself is simple, really, yet revolutionary. After all, how might one convene an AA meeting or church basement rummage sale without the instant communion of the folding chair?

At the author’s reading in the chain bookstore, might we be forced to sit on our haunches like a nation of baseball catchers? How can one play musical chairs if not for the ability to snatch one of them away at the very moment when the needle is shwerpped from the record and the music stops?

Without folding chairs, the string section of the community symphony could not arrange themselves in an elegant arc with plenty of elbow room. The convention would be unable to accommodate the masses clutching their homemade signs, ready to leap up with Baptist exultation to cheer the charismatic candidate. Sans folding chairs and, for that matter, folding tables (which, together, predate the “mobile office”), Rotarians would have to cancel the dinner honoring the beaming charity founder holding up that gigantic blow-up cardboard check for the newsbeat photographer. Without the folding chair, the world would be filled with people just milling about.

At holiday season, we don’t say to the surprise extra guest, “Hey, grab that Lazy-Boy over there and pull it up to the table.” Besides, those chairs have a history of their own, hidden in the creases. Nicholson Baker said it perfectly: “Haven’t you felt a peculiar sort of worry about the chair in your living room that no one sits in?”

No one stigmatizes a folding chair.

That’s my point exactly. Folding chairs are beyond reproach, portable and ubiquitous—the essence of democracy, the immediacy of relief for the elderly, a singular respite for a future in transition. Around folding chairs, we’re all agnostic, yet devoted.

However, they weren’t always the people’s furniture. Ancient Egyptians and Greeks conceived of a folding chair-like thing so that commanding officers could plot their next moves. And Etruscans used folding chairs during tribunals. From the Romans through the Renaissance sluggers, the “X” shape of the folding chair has served only those at the top.

At one point, I considered the Tobias story as my mother’s clever attempt to kick-start my curiosity so that I might enjoy the process of learning through trial and error, success and failure. And as it turns out, the failure genre has become a badge of honor du jour at airport bookstores. It was not about the invention, but about inventiveness—not so much about what one creates, but creativity.

And so I imagine Tobias sitting down in a heap, then gently – ladylike – in his attempt to accommodate the variability of the human form. This was true science at work: control group, experimental group, a hypothesis undergoing testing. A tarp in the corner of his workspace covers a stack of kindling, evidence of his attempts to get it right. How boorish and impertinent it seems to second-guess, or even cast aspersions upon, such determination. He was working on something important, though no one was imaginative enough to see it.

I’ve concluded that the folding chair is a metaphor for ideas, whether they are fully formed or not. Maybe I just needed to percolate and a good idea would germinate.

An idea that, like the folding chair, morphs over time. Long before modern patents were invented, ancient Egyptians and Greeks conceived of a folding chair-like thing so that commanding officers could plot their next moves. And Etruscans used folding chairs during tribunals. From the Romans through the Renaissance sluggers, the “X” shape of the folding chair has served as a consistent symbol of power.

A tweakable idea. Buckminster Fuller talks about how, by shifting the rudder just a bit, one can change the course of a ship. Malcolm Gladwell shows us how a dramatic shift can be catalyzed by a “tipping point.” One idea leads to another—the sudden nano breakthrough discovered by accident, the unanticipated viral video, the spontaneous Arab Spring.

My good friend, Jane Goodall drives this particular point home, having observed that chimpanzees make tools, thereby tying a kite string of innovation between man and the entire animal kingdom. Given a chance, a chimp could very well have invented the chair, though perhaps having struggled a bit with the drawings.

An idea that can be shared. I’m a true fan of individual achievement, mind you, and credit where it’s due. Surely Michelangelo would fume at the irritating and cloying notion of chipping away at David with a group of cheery collaborators. He should get credit for that masterpiece. But why such strum und drang over claims of ownership of ideas?

Getting “to the bottom” of the Tobias story, I scoured genealogy sites like for birth and death certificates, ship registries, and voting records. I tried different spellings of his name, just in case a clerk at Ellis Island had written it down wrong. Maybe Google would make another suggestion: Did you mean Tobias Mueller? Thomas Mahler? Toby Moler?

Psychiatric records were off limits, so I decided to scope down on those tiny microfiche squares of local newspapers, hoping to come across a picture of him—one hand on the front of the seat, the other on the backrest. I fingered down pages of old phone books, seeking and make a few calls. At the Salvation Army, I fingered about for a name emblazoned upon, or a metal label underneath, folding chairs. No luck. Just splinters. No sign of a Tobias Miller in any form or spelling, at least not in my family.

I thought, oh well. No matter. On some level, Tobias was as real as my mother’s imagination, as powerful as myth, a great conversation piece. Until just recently, over 3 years since my mother passed away. I just don’t understand how I missed it. Editing this book (after having shelved it for 2 years), I looked for an image of the folding chair. Once again, I Googled “Tobias Miller, folding chair.” Suddenly, it appeared. “Auxiliary Seat. US Patent 1302828. Tobias Miller. Publication date: May 6, 1919. Cleveland, Ohio”:

Perhaps my mother meant all along that ideas, like public libraries, should be community property—unfolded, arranged, and stored for the next crowd ready to unfold them again.   That anyone can sit down and dream something up. For me, it has been a world filled with teachers sharing stories and rearranging ideas from rows into circles so that everyone is seen and heard.