The History Of Treadmills: From A Torture Tool To Your Home Gym

The History Of Treadmill is quite intriguing, with three distinct origin stories. These stories trace back to Roman building techniques, Victorian punishments for criminals, and Western scientists seeking to improve heart health. Despite its varied origins, the common theme is the treadmill’s usefulness. Historically, it has always been utilized for a specific purpose, often disregarding the well-being of those compelled to use it.

However, the modern concept of the treadmill as a tool for promoting user health and enjoyment is a relatively recent development. This shift can be attributed to the societal and scientific encouragement of jogging in American culture during the 1960s. Since then, the treadmill has become a ubiquitous fixture in gyms and households worldwide.

The Early History of the Treadmill

The use of treadmills can be traced back to ancient times when treadmill cranes were utilized to lift heavy objects. Individuals would walk in a circular motion, similar to a hamster wheel, allowing them to hoist heavy loads into the air using pulleys and a rotating axis. This innovation revolutionized the movement of heavy objects, as it enabled a small team to efficiently lift and transport large weights. Additionally, during the eighteenth century, horses in Europe and America were used on flat treadmills for various tasks, which ultimately led to the popularization of the term “horsepower.” These treadmill innovations were instrumental in agricultural and industrial processes, impacting various aspects of daily life.

Treadmills in Prisons

The treadmill, as we know it today, has a dark and brutal history. In 1817, the English inventor Sir William Cubitt introduced the treadmill as a form of punishment for prisoners. Back then, hard labor was commonly used as a means to break and “reform” incarcerated individuals’ spirits. Cubitt’s invention, known as the treadmill or treadwheel, required prisoners to work for long hours, anywhere from eight to 16 hours a day.

It is said that Cubitt was inspired to create the treadmill after seeing prisoners sitting idle in the prison. However, it is more likely that his motivation stemmed from the broader production-oriented mindset of the Industrial Age. Unlike today’s treadmills, Cubitt’s design was more akin to a StairMaster and was intended to be a machine that could grind wheat or pump water.

The installation of Cubitt’s machines quickly gained popularity in prisons across England, with 109 out of 200 prisons having a treadmill by 1842. The concept also spread to the United States with four initial installations in 1822. Unfortunately, the use of the treadmill as a form of punishment often resulted in the deaths of prisoners.

Even renowned writer and poet Oscar Wilde was subjected to the treadmill during his incarceration in the 1890s. In a poem reflecting on his punishment, Wilde described the terror that lay within every man enduring the treadmill.

It has been speculated that Wilde’s early death at 46 may have been partially attributed to his experiences with the treadmill. While this remains unconfirmed, it is a grim testament to the harshness of this punishment. By the early twentieth century, the use of penal treadmills largely vanished from U.S. and British prisons, marking the end of a dark chapter in the history of punishment.

Treadmills for Fitness

The concept of personal treadmills as exercise equipment can be traced back to the late 19th century. Unlike earlier versions, these treadmills were flat and focused on promoting health. The modern treadmill, as we know it today, was initially designed to improve lung capacity and heart health through aerobic exercise.

In the 1940s, cardiologist Dr. Robert Bruce developed a medical treadmill with an adjustable motor to assess patients’ heart rate and cardiovascular health. This treadmill, capable of adjusting incline and speed, marked the initial version of the modern treadmill. The Bruce protocol, created by Dr. Bruce, continues to be used in testing heart health, with several papers published on the use of treadmills for studying heart health.

However, it was Dr. Kenneth Cooper who became synonymous with the treadmill, thanks to his 1968 book “Aerobics,” which sparked interest in jogging in America. Prior to the 1960s, jogging was virtually non-existent in the U.S. It wasn’t until concerns about heart disease and medical endorsements of jogging became widespread that it gained popularity. Initially started as a middle-aged effort to improve health, jogging evolved into a widely practiced regimen for people of all ages.

Inspired by Cooper’s “Aerobics,” inventor William Staub founded Aerobics Inc. and created the Pacemaster, often regarded as the first treadmill designed for home use. Initially used in medical settings, the Pacemaster 600 and its subsequent models were introduced for home and gym use by the late 1970s.

Staub’s invention emerged during a period of growth in health clubs across the nation, leading to the development of various types of home treadmills and fitness equipment, including under-desk treadmills and folding treadmills, throughout the 1970s.

Conclusion:

The modern treadmill has its origins in a combination of building techniques, historical punishments, and the medical field’s recognition of physical exercise as a way to enhance long-term health. In the 19th century, this training machine was used as a harsh form of punishment, but it underwent a revolutionary transformation in the 20th century. The next time you use your treadmill at home, it’s interesting to consider its varied history.

References:

  • Laussade, Alice. (2023) “Dr. Kenneth Cooper Is the Father of Aerobics, and You Might Hate Him for It.” D Magazine.
  • Latham, A. (2015). “The History of a Habit: Jogging as a Palliative to Sedentariness in 1960s America.” Cultural Geographies, 22(1), 103-126.
  • Yardley, William. (2012) “William Staub, Engineer Who Built an Affordable Treadmill, Dies at 96.” The New York Times
  • Wilson, A. (2002). “Machines, Power, and the Ancient Economy.” The Journal of Roman Studies, 92, 1-32.
  • McShane, C., & Tarr, J. (2007). “The Horse in the City: Living Machines in the Nineteenth Century.” JHU Press.
  • Shayt, D. H. (1989). “Stairway to Redemption: America’s Encounter with the British Prison Treadmill.” Technology and Culture, 30(4), 908-938.
  • Reid, V. C. (2012). “Running Wilde: Landscape, the Body, and the History of the Treadmill.” Critical Survey, 24(3), 73-91.
  • Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline and for the Reformation of Juvenile Offenders (London, England). (1822) Description of the Tread Mill. Invented by Mr. William Cubitt, of Ipswich, for the Employment of Prisoners, and Recommended by the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline.
  • Wilde, Oscar. (1897) “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” Poetry Foundation.
  • Koeppel, Dan. (2019) “The Torturous History of the Treadmill.” The New York Times.
  • Luong, M. W., Ignaszewski, M., & Taylor, C. M. (2016). “Stress Testing: A Contribution from Dr. Robert A. Bruce, Father of Exercise Cardiology.” British Columbia Medical Journal, 58(2), 70-76.
  • Kennedy, J. W., Cobb, L. A., & Samson, W. E. (2005). “Robert Arthur Bruce, MD: 1916–2004.”

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