Modern treadmills are used all over the world to improve cardiovascular health and to shave off unwanted weight. It has been adopted by major gym franchises and used in millions of personal homes, but the treadmill’s origin is far more oppressive than its good health reputation would suggest.
This video by Ted-Ed instructor Conor Heffernan and animator Yukai Du sheds light on the dark inspiration for its design – the treadmill was invented as a device of punishment for 19th-century prisoners.
It was designed by Sir William Cubitt in 1818 as a response to the dire prison conditions in England during that time. The treadmill of that time was implemented as a kind of rehabilitation device for volatile prisoners. Cubitt proposed to use the inmates’ own muscle power to exhaust them into idleness. The narrator quotes a remark made by James Hardy, a prison guard in 1824, that it is the treadmill’s “monotonous steadiness and not its severity [that] constitutes its terror.”
The treadmill of that time looked very different to the exercise machines of today. It was a twenty-foot long cylinder with 24 spokes that the prisoners would step onto like walking up an infinite staircase. The rotating axis would carry several prisoners at once who would work on it continuously for more than six hours per day.
The most infamous treadmill of this kind was constructed in 1821 in Brixton Prison and it was used to grind grain. These hard labour treadmills were often used to power plumbing systems and pump air into ventilated mines.
It was relatively recently that the treadmill as we know it and use as a common exercise machine became part of popular culture. The jogging craze of 1970s America caused engineers to redesign the labour treadmill into a personal fitness machine, tailored for consumers and far removed from its prison-yard start in life.