Did the British Penal System Really Invent the Treadmill?

August 4, 2020
treadmill desk evolved from prison treadmills used for hard labor
Alternatively known as a Treadwheel or Everlasting Staircase, the device credited with the introduction of the treadmill was really more of what we would call a stepping machine today.

Believe it or not, this is true. The so-called “treadwheels” were originally designed as a form of hard labor in British penal colonies. An English civil engineer named Sir William Cubitt devised the machine to reform stubborn and idle convicts. He dubbed his invention the “everlasting staircase.” It was actually more like a stepping machine than a treadmill, but let’s not quibble over slight historical distortions.

The Treadmill was Invented for Punishment

While avid gym goers might occasionally refer to their treadmill workouts as “punishing,” nothing compares to what the Brits had in mind when they first introduced treadmills as a form of penal servitude in 1818. These treadmills often took the form of large paddle wheels some 20 feet in diameter with 24 steps around a six-foot cylinder. Prisoners had to work six or more hours a day, climbing the equivalent of 5,000 to 14,000 vertical feet. While the purpose was mainly punitive, the mills could have been used to grind grain or pump water, hence the term “tread mill.” Probably also the root of the term “the daily grind.”

treadmill desks were derived, ultimately, from prison torture devices known as treadwheelsThe exertion, combined with poor diets, often led to injury and illness (and rock-hard glutes), but that didn’t stop prisons all over Britain and even four in the United States from installing the contraptions. In 1824, prison guard James Hardie credited the device with taming New York’s more defiant inmates. He wrote that it was the treadmill’s “monotonous steadiness, and not its severity, which constitutes its terror.”

Another favorite implement of pain was the shot drill, which involved stooping without bending the knees, lifting a heavy cannonball slowly to chest height, taking three steps to the right, replacing it on the ground, stepping back three paces, and repeating, moving cannonballs from one pile to another like so many kettle bells. Do you sense a theme here?

Also popular was the crank machine—a device which turned a crank by hand, which in turn forced four large cups or ladles through sand inside a drum, doing nothing useful. Male prisoners had to turn the handle 14,400 times a day, as registered on a dial. The warder could make the task harder by tightening an adjusting screw, hence the slang term “getting screwed.” But, there’s a bright side to this story…

Accidental Genius, Unrecognized at the Time

Ironically, it was a prison physician in England who made an observation one day that prisoners who were relegated to hard labor on the treadmill were much healthier overall than those who were not. This was the first dawning of the notion that a hard cardio workout could lead to health benefits. Alas, that information wouldn’t be acted upon for more than a half century.

Over the years, American wardens gradually stopped using the treadmill in favor of other backbreaking tasks, such as picking cotton, breaking rocks, or laying bricks. In England, the treadmill persisted until the late 19th century, when it was abandoned for being too cruel. The Prisons Act of 1889 abolished hard labor and instead recognized that labor within prisons should have a constructive purpose.

Which Brings Us to the Present

The machine was all but lost to history until the mid-20th century. The first modern medical treadmill was used in 1952 by Dr. Robert Bruce of the University of Washington, a cardiologist who conducted research to monitor and diagnose various heart conditions and diseases. From his findings he eventually developed a diagnostic test that is still used today in the evaluation of cardiac function, leading to him being dubbed “The Father of Exercise Cardiology”.

But when the USAF’s Dr. Kenneth Cooper demonstrated the health benefits of aerobic exercise in the 1960s, the treadmill made a triumphant return to popularity. Bill Staub and Dr. Kenneth Cooper brought the first home exercise treadmill to market through Aerobics, Inc. The popularity of aerobic exercise equipment at home and in gyms grew throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s. Today, one out of six Americans uses a treadmill regularly.

Nowadays, well-paid personal trainers have happily taken the place of prison wardens. Some would say they even draw some inspiration from the motivational tactics of their progenitors. But hard labor in our modern society is more about being sentenced to the chair, sitting in front of a computer and in meetings all day. Getting in a good exercise workout is now deemed by many over-stressed office workers as a luxury activity reserved only for people with the free time and income to enjoy it.

The Ultimate Irony

For the more than one hundred million sedentary office workers in America today the treadmill desk can actually bring real relief from the pain and suffering of working at a desk all day. And rather than just monotonously spinning the wheel without seeing anything for their efforts, working at a treadmill desk actually boosts worker productivity and mental outlook, while improving health!

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  • Will Davidson July 8, 2020

    History! Thank you for such informative article.