The History of the Indoor Rower


Author Bio: Today’s excellent post comes from Andrew, the founder and CEO at Aim Workout. As a passionate fitness professional and tri-athlete, there is no adventure he won’t embark on. From mountain biking, deep sea diving, rock climbing and cycling to boxing and mixed martial arts, Andrew has a penchant for the wild and extreme.

The rower has a rich history dating back to 4th century BC, Athens where it was used as a military training device. Rowers with wooden frames were built on shore so that inexperienced oarsmen could learn timing and practice proper rowing technique before going out to sea. While the Indoor rowers of today are efficient machines that simulate rowing stroke accurately and measure power output with huge success, the evolution of the indoor rower has seen many hiccups along the way.

To get a better picture of how the rower has evolved as a training equipment over the years to become the top cardio training device across the country, let’s take a short detour into the last 100 years or so…

Fast Forward to the Mid-19th Century

Curtis machine

Fast forward from ancient Greece to the mid 19th century and we have the very first early rowing machine designs. One that stood out among the others was W.B. Curtis’s hydraulic based damper rowing machine design for which he was issued a patent in the US. The revolutionary aspect of this, the arguably first indoor rower of the time, was the flywheel and ratchet system it had on board. The installation of the flywheel was truly a mark of genius, since it was successfully able to store the rotational energy that is essential to achieving an ideal motion on the rower. Even today, many modern rowers, including the top of the line, world famous Concept 2 edition of rowers use a flywheel design.

However, where the Curtis machine failed and lacked was in its ability to successfully imitate actual rowing motion. Besides this, the machine also could not measure the energy output of the strokes by a user. Although, the original design by Curtis inspired many imitations, none are worth mentioning besides the Narragansett hydraulic rower.

The 1900’s


The Narragansett hydraulic rower was extremely popular during the early 1900’s and used linear pneumatic resistance. Yet another US invention, this one in Rhode Island; the Narragansett hydraulic indoor rower was mass produced between 1900-1960 and sold to universities , gyms and some households albeit only rarely. While these machines used a slightly more sophisticated pressurized gas system design, even they failed in successfully mimicking rowing motion and measuring power output.

The Mid-20th Century (aka the Mid-1900’s)


The next popular wave of rowers that were prominent during the 1950’-60’ used a large iron flywheel and mechanical friction brake design. One such popular rower was developed by the John Harrison of Leichhardt Rowing Club in Sydney. This machine which subsequently came to be known as the Harrison-Cotton machine was the very first of its kinds to be able to accurately quantify human power output with an accuracy range of less than 1%. Although a remarkable achievement for its time, the weight correction factor coupled with the general discomfort of operating the machine led to its gradual downfall.

The Advent of Air Resistance and the Concept 2 Indoor Rowing Machine


By the 1980’s the first air resistance indoor rowers were launched by Repco, an Australian Automotive Engineering company. Soon after, the incorporation of air resistance coupled with flyweight designs paved the way for a whole new generation of efficient and comfortable indoor rowing machines. Among them and perhaps the most popular rower design of all, was the first Concept 2 design introduced by Dick and Peter Dreissigacker in 1981. Not only was this machine the very first to successfully imitate the motion of rowing on the water, but it was also efficiently able to quantify power output.

A few years later, the Concept 2 Model B rower was introduced with the first digital performance monitor that can accurately calibrate and track a user’s energy output. Not much has changed from the Original Concept 2 design, and today the concept two has become the standard for competitive rowing across the world.

The Indoor Rower for the home

Apart from air resistance design, today there are several other designs in the market, including water resistance, hydraulic resistance and even magnetic resistance. Most modern machines are light, durable, easy to maneuver and some are even foldable making storage remarkably simple. Check out this review of the Concept 2 Model E indoor rowing machine for the home that offers an extremely smooth full-body workout and showcases accurate workout metrics via its powerful Performance monitor 5.

The single biggest advantage of the indoor rower as a cardio machine lies in its ability to provide a strong cardio workout while simultaneously providing a strength workout. It offers a strength plus endurance workout that exercises the full body, including the legs, back, chest, core, shoulder as well as the arms. Pretty amazing! How many cycles or treadmills have that ability- none. It’s no surprise that the indoor rower has become of the most sought after indoor training equipment for weight loss in the home.

7 thoughts on “The History of the Indoor Rower

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  1. Interesting – according to anthropologist Peter McAllister in his book Manthropology, modern day Olympic rowers could not match the reported speeds or VO2 maxes of Ancient Athenean rowers….maybe we need to get those ancient training devices back into our modern day “gyms”.

    1. Amazing, I’d never heard that. Would be fascinating to see how the two would have compared. I suspect rowing for battle purposes always brought an extra training incentive that a medal perhaps can’t!

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