Most people involved in fitness are familiar with the concept of the treadmill. In modern parlance, a treadmill is an electrical device that rotates a strip of elastic but durable material to simulate the movement of the ground beneath the runner. Its use as “entry-level” equipment has led to it becoming the best-selling fitness equipment in history.
How did this device, once used to punish criminals, develop into humanity’s favorite fitness equipment?
The prisons in Victorian Britain were full of people driven to crime by the desperation engendered by the monotonous factory work that many were engaged in. In the early stages of the British industrial revolution, crime became a big problem because of the low pay and the nature of the work that many had to do. Thus, there were many out-of-work people in the prison system. One man, Sir William Cubitt, wanted to turn this labor pool into something the government could use. To do this, he looked back in time.
Although treadmills were widely used under the Victorian government of England, similar inventions had existed since humanity had learned to convert mechanical energy into something useful. Thus, Cubitt came up with the concept of using the old knowledge of that century to put British prisoners to work. To do this, he created a cylindrical ladder that rotated around an axis by the force and weight of the prisoners pushing on the steps. This force would be converted by the invention into useful energy.
During this “exercise,” the prisoners had to climb this seemingly endless ladder for hours, converting their energy into mechanical energy.
On average, prisoners had to use the device for about 6 hours a day, powering mine fans or even spinning wheat mills to cope with food shortages in the early 19th century. Since its introduction in 1818, the device continued to be used until the end of the 19th century, after which many found it too cruel a punishment.
At the dawn of the 20th century, there was a new use for the old Victorian device in fitness. The earliest mention of a patent registration for the fitness treadmill dates back to June 17, 1913.
This revival was sparked by Wayne Quinton and Robert Bruce in 1952. The two inventors saw the potential of the invention as a device to treat and diagnose lung and heart disease. The device continued to be used for this purpose until it became widely sought after and used.
Since the late 70s, the invention has been used by many, from ordinary people trying to improve their fitness by doing some aerobic exercise at home, to Olympic runners who use the device to train and assess their performance.