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The Astronomers' Chair: The Moral Economy of Sitting in the History of Astronomy

Project by Omar W. Nasim

The project offers the first cultural history of the chair’s role in the history of science. It does so by honing in on the astronomer’s observing chair: a task-specific mechanical chair designed—especially between 1820 and 1880—for telescopic observations. In order to explain the observing chair’s widespread appeal and presence in nineteenth-century representations of astronomy, I disentangle the relevant visual culture that informed European audiences in how they interpreted images of chairs more generally. By using the work of furniture and design historians, who have decoded the normative place of the ordinary chair and postures in the bourgeois home, this project provides an interpretative framework for the social and cultural significance of representations of observing chairs in Germany, France, but particularly in Great Britain and the United States.  Broaching a variety of different themes and subjects related to nineteenth-century visual cultures, the project casts a fresh glance at race and gender, furniture and science, posture and knowledge, historicity and modernity, labour and professionalization, Self and how the Other found its way into how astronomers sat, where they sat, and how seat furniture was designed for them. The work directly engages with racial-, gender-, colonial-, and nineteenth-century studies as well as issues around the epistemological, visual, and moral significance of the seated postures in the history of science, technology and design. This interdisciplinary project discloses and tracks a number of essential threads that constituted the significance of the astronomers’ observing chair as a cultural symbol of modernity.

Publications:

The Astronomer's Chair: A Visual and Cultural History (MIT Press, forthcoming)

Presentations:

“The Astronomers’ Chair,” at the Copenhagen Planetarium, Oct. 3, 2019

Keynote Address to the 14th Biennial History of Astronomy Workshop at the University of Notre Dame, June 19-23, 2019

“The Astronomer’s Chair: The Moral Economy of Sitting,” Colloquium for the History of Knowledge, Humboldt University Berlin, April 25, 2018

“The Astronomer’s Chair: Moral Economy of Sitting in Science, 1750-1900,” Workshop: vom Schreibtisch, LMU (Munich), December 14, 2017


  1. Fakultät für Philosophie, Kunst-, Geschichts- und Gesellschaftswissenschaften
  2. Institut für Philosophie