A Brief History of Treadmills

Nowadays, treadmills are sought after as an effective means of efficient, aerobic workout. However, treadmills weren’t always renowned for being a highly exalted fad as they were in the 70s – this piece of machinery conceals a dark, distorted past behind its conveyor belt.

“Traditionally, the word ‘treadmill’ was utilized to refer to any kind of mill operated by either an individual or an animal that would tread the steps of a wheel in order to grind grain”. The basic treadmill features include its moving platform, a conveyor belt, and a flywheel or electric motor. The speed with which the belt moves is equal to the rate of movement in terms of running and walking.

Established in 1817 by Sir William Cubitt, treadmills were seen as a reformative means of rectifying prisoners. This invention is clearly a product of the time and environment in which it was established, seeing that its primary function was to support the economic needs in Post-Waterloo Britain.

The Napoleonic Wars had left the British badly in debt – triumphant, however still in an abysmal state. British labourers were tasked to rebuild the very same British economy decimated by the Napoleonic Wars; with the Government debilitated from further pouring money into munitions and supplies for the Army. The prison system in Britain required remodelling in itself, and many social movements organized by religious groups and philanthropists, including Charles Dickens, sought to change these dire conditions and achieve a new and improved human-rights respectful prison system. Prisons were refashioned with the introduction of new types of rehabilitation, including the treadmill.

The country could not afford to allow convicts to take employment set for English labourers. Resultingly, Cubitt innovatively came out with institutional treadmills purposely designed to offer power to mills.

Prisoners stepped on 24 spokes of a large paddle wheel and with the rotary movement of the wheel, prisoners were obliged to keep stepping in order to avoid the risk of falling off. Meanwhile, this rotation made gears pump out water, crush grain, or power mills, the trademarked “treadmill” finding its initial origins here.

Estimates display that prisoners spent around six hours daily on treadmills, comparable to climbing 5,000 to 14,000 feet; 14,000 feet being roughly Mount Everest’s halfway point. 

Unsurprisingly, the physical toil, poor nutrition, and the suffering mental states of the prisoners saw them enduring several breakdowns and injuries.  New York prison guard James Hardie credited the device with taming his more boisterous inmates, writing that the “monotonous steadiness, and not its severity…constitutes its terror,” a quote many still agree with.                                                                                                                                                                       However, the Prison’s Act of 1898 saw to the expulsion of treadmills in Britain as they were recognised as being excessively and unnecessarily cruel.

The treadmill resurged in 1911, when a treadmill patent was registered in the United States. By 1952, the portent for today’s modern treadmill had been initiated. The 1970s jogging craze saw to the glorification of the treadmill, endlessly advertised as a convenient way to better aerobic fitness, maintaining its popularity ever since. Considering the aforementioned, we must be appreciative of the fact that we are the ones who voluntarily subject ourselves to the treadmill, and can hop off at any given time, to our heart’s content. 

Written by: Cara Borg Aquilina

(This article was originally posted on civilsocietymt.com)


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