The History Of Treadmills Reveals That They Were Originally Devices Used To Cause Suffering

Would it come as a surprise if the treadmill’s history started as an ancient form of torture? The exercise equipment’s history may not have been that grim, but the reality isn’t that off course. In 1818, English civil engineer William Cubitt was behind the creation of the treadmill, or the treadwheel at the time, and its original intent was a far cry from being part of an in-home gym. When he designed the stationary walking machine, he did so as a means of rehabilitation in English prisons.

Since it wasn’t motorized, the machine’s movement relied on the prisoner’s weight, which pushed down on one step, causing another to line up for the user’s foot. It was more akin to what a Stairmaster is today, requiring prisoners to climb up an endless flight of stairs that lead to nowhere. Wardens hoped that using the treadmill would cause prisoners to suffer and, therefore, walk away with a life lesson. In some instances, the energy of the treadmill was used as a water pump.

After approximately 80 years of use in prisons, Cubitt’s antiquated design was proving to be ineffectual and too bare bones for some prison administrations. In an 1882 edition of Scientific American, an article titled “Prison Electricity” questioned whether treadmills could have a practical purpose as well, such as using them to store electricity. The suggested plan was that prisons could store and then sell energy to help pay for maintenance.

Due to the extensive physical exertion, sometimes as much as hours at a time, some prisons were reporting at least one treadmill-related fatality per week. This sparked the decline of the archaic machine and, by 1901, only 13 were in use, a drastic drop from the 109 that were implemented across England, Scotland, and Wales by 1842.

How the device made the leap from prisoner reformation device to training machine is thanks to American mechanical engineer William Staub, who filed a patent on a redesigned treadmill in 1913. It was quite the leap to make, but Staub’s design launched into being the top-selling exercise machine in the United States. The treadmill may be a far cry from the reformation machine it was 200 years ago, but many likely still see it as the same torturous device prisoners were forced to use.