A Brief History of the Treadmill

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When it comes to physical activity, the treadmill often feels like a form of cruel and unusual punishment.

Well that’s because it is.

In the early 1800s, an English Civil Engineer named Sir William Cubitt devised the World’s first treadmill as a means of punishing and reforming England’s prisoners. Disgusted by the idleness of the prisoners at St. Edmond’s Gaol in Bury, Cubitt believed that hard exercise would help whip convicts into shape (pun intended by the way). Cubitt’s ideas weren’t particularly unique to a Victorian England that often times equated fitness with a strong moral character.

The typical Cubitt treadmill rotated around a horizontal axis, requiring the prisoner to step upwards. The easiest way to imagine what this would be like is to hop on a stepper for an hour. Those convicts unfortunate enough to be punished by the treadmill were given a horizontal handrail for stability, less they fall off and injure themselves. Typically prisoners would step on 24 spokes of a large paddle wheel and as the wheel turned, gears were used to pump out water or crush grain (leading to the name treadmill).

Now while the time prisoners spent on the treadmill varied, it’s said that six or more hours a day was the average. This is the equivalent of climbing anywhere from 5,000 to 14,000 feet. To put that into context, 14,000 feet would bring you to about the halfway point of Mount Everest.

Unsurprisingly the exertion, combined with the poor diets of England’s prisoners lead to a series of injuries. Not that the prison guards seemed to take much notice. In 1824, New York prison guard James Hardie credited the device with taming his more boisterous inmates, writing that the treadmill’s “monotonous steadiness, and not its severity, which constitutes its terror.”

A quote many of us will not doubt agree with.

Remarkably, the treadmill lasted in England until the late 19th century when it was eventually banned for being excessively cruel.

Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view, the treadmill made a resurgence in the early 1970s largely down to the work of Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, the man who popularised the running craze of the 1970s.

So there you have it, the treadmill is cruel and unusual punishment that breaks its user thanks to its sheer monotony. Personally I’ll stick with weight training or running outside! But hey, maybe they didn’t have the right equipment back then? Who knows!

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