Guest Post: The Fascinating History of the Treadmill

Young people exercising in a gym on treadmill. Focus is on foreground.

As most people who work out at the gym will testify, running on the treadmill, while being a pretty great way to get your cardio in, can often feel torturous. Interestingly enough, if you have ever compared running on the narrow confines of the treadmill belt to punishment, you wouldn’t be too far from the truth! While the very first treadmill was invented as a means to utilize and harness idle energy of prison inmates, the contraption has come a long way to become the friendly piece of gym equipment we all know and love.

Today there are multiple brands that offer a plethora of specifications and features to fit your custom needs. For instance, critics say that the Nordic brand is great for streaming classes, the Sole is great for walkers, Lifespan makes good treadmill desks, or you can learn more about the horizon treadmill, which is considered the best budget friendly and compact treadmill on the market. Here is a brief history of the evolution of the treadmill.

Invention and early use

In the 1800s, Britain’s prisons were overflowing and there was a great debate about whether the inmates should be punished, rehabilitated, educated or reformed while they served their time.

There was disagreement among the ruling groups in Victorian England and as a compromise on how the prisoners were to be treated. The treadmill was invented by a Sir William Cubitt, a civil engineer who designed it as a means to punish the prisoners while keeping their bodies physically fit, and getting some hard labour in the mix. Cubitt also believed that this hard exercise would help take care of the idle time of the convicts and help channel their energy.

The original Cubitt treadmill looked very different from its modern-day descendant. It was a very large barrel shaped structure, the walls of which were made of slats or spokes. The prisoners who were being punished by the treadmill would hold on to a safety rail and step up on one spoke after another, making the barrel spin on its axis.

As the structure wheel turned, it activated cogs and gears that were used to grind grain or pump water, hence the name “mill”. Prisoners would spend six or more hours a day on the treadmill on average. This exertion, coupled with poor quality diets would often lead to the prisoner sustain a great number of injuries.

A prison warden claimed that the “monotonous steadiness” and severity helped “tame” the boisterous and unruly inmates. Despite being a cruel punishment, the prison treadmills remained operational in England until the late 19th century, after which it was banned for being an excessively cruel punishment.

Economic impact of the Treadmill

In addition to supposedly helping reform the inmates, the treadmill was also hard labour. The prison treadmills, powered by the free labour provided by the convicts, were used to grind grain, pump up water, and even power mills. This system worked sufficiently well in the early 1800s while the British economy was flourishing. However, the Napoleonic wars in 1815 damaged the economy and resulted in many free British labourers becoming unemployed. By the early 1820s, the prison treadmill program was ended to grant free labourers work opportunities. Eventually, by the 1830s the prison treadmill program was benched.

The Treadmill travels to America

Success of the treadmill prison program made it a popular addition to almost a hundred prisons in Great Britain and eventually in the US. The treadmill was also used in the southern states by slave owners to punish runaway and miscreant slaves. However, it never garnered as much popularity in the US as it had in Great Britain and eventually it fizzled out.

First Treadmill Patent

The first patent for a treadmill design was issued in 1913 in the United States for what was labeled simply a ‘training machine’. This machine was used to exercise, most early models relying on manual power to operate.

Treadmill Evolution

As health awareness grew in the US, more and more doctors started using treadmills to help in their diagnostics for heart and lung conditions. In 1952 Robert Bruce and Wayne Quinton invented the electric treadmill which became the forerunner of the modern day treadmill which can now be found everywhere including gyms, homes, and hospitals.

With the health and fitness craze coming back full swing in the 70s, the treadmill made a massive comeback. The work of Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, is notable in this regard.

Innovations in the Modern Day Treadmill

The modern day treadmill is a staple piece of equipment in any gym. People also buy and keep treadmills to workout at home and the office. However the treadmill has come a long way from the basic version as more and more innovations are being introduced to make the treadmill more convenient for the end user. Here are some of the latest and most interesting innovations in treadmills.

  • Treadmills with USB connectivity and touchscreens, to plug in and sync with your phone.
  • Work desk treadmills that can be placed under your desk to make the most of the time spent at the office.
  • Standing desk treadmills, to make office time productive in more ways than one.
  • Treadmills with built in TVs and entertainment systems, to allow you to be distracted while you pound out the kilometers.
  • Built in WiFi, heart monitors and other health statistics monitors.
  • Self-powered treadmills with a curved belt that emulate the natural running motion having an upward tilt at both ends.
  • Machines with bars and resistance belts that allow added fitness moves and versatility to the workout.
  • Hydrotherapy treadmills for use under water that are optimized to provide greater resistance with far less joint impact.
  • NASA has even launched an anti-gravity treadmill, that enables users to virtually experience “walking on air”.
  • Virtual reality treadmills that allow users to travel through different universes with a virtual reality headset and multi-directional belts.

It is fascinating how an instrument with a dark past, that was initially designed to be a punishment and torture device, has sneakily made its way into mainstream lives and may have a very bright future. Their restricted motion which was thought of as sheer monotony, is even used as a form of entertainment and wellbeing in the modern world.

Sales of treadmills are at an all-time high, thanks to COVID and social distancing protocols.

Author Bio:

Mr Tayyab is a Freelance Journalist and writes about Nutrition, Minerals and tools to help sportsmen

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