Internet is a weird place. People post various legends and myths as facts without thinking twice. For example, have you heard a story saying that the treadmill was invented to torture people? According to this legend, this common exercising device was invented as a punishment to prisoners of England. However, it doesn’t take much to do some fact checking and find that treadmills existed way before they were used in prisons.

First treadmills were a bit like this one – people were climbing up to use their weight to spin the mechanisms of a mill, irrigation devices or other machinery. Kaboldy, Wikimedia

In fact, many articles say that treadmills, in some shape or another, exist for more than 4000 years. Of course, back in a day they were not used for exercising. Although we can be sure that these people got their cardio done pretty well, the first treadmills were used for activities such as milling grain. These treadmills did not really look like our modern electric exercising machines. Usually someone had to walk around in circles pushing a post, which in turn turned the mechanism. Or, more treadmill-like, had to walk on a turning circle, which was slanted, allowing it to spin more easily as the worker was always climbing up.

Fast forward to 1818, when an English engineer named Sir William Cubitt, son of a miller, decided that prisoners in ‘Bury St Edmunds’ were just a waste of workforce. He then designed a machine which harvested the power of prisoners who were climbing up its never ending stairs. Of course, the actual purpose of this treadmill was to punish people instead of actually employing them – there were much more efficient ways to make them work.

This is what was used to punish prisoners – they had to climb up these never ending stairs for 6 hours a day or more. Lennon001, Wikimedia

This mechanism looked a bit like the paddles of a steamboat. Prisoners were standing side by side while climbing up this roller, making it spin and power a mill or, in some other cases, water pumps or even air pumps for mines. Prisoners, unsurprisingly, hated this treadmill thing, because they had to work six hours a day, sometimes more. Now it does not look like much, but imagine climbing up stairs for 6 hours. And if you fall, you are chewed up by the mechanism, which cannot stop that quickly.

In 1913, a patent was filled for a treadmill “training machine”, but it still took decades until Dr. Robert Bruce and Wayne Quinton at the University of Washington introduced an actual modern version of the treadmill to be used in hospitals. Then they migrated to professional gyms, but common people still could not take advantage of them. When the American engineer William Staub read the 1968 book “Aerobics”, by Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper, he decided to create a treadmill for ordinary people.

At first, modern treadmills were used in hospitals, later – in professional gyms. RIA Novosti archive, Wikimedia

By reading that book, Staub found that people who run 4-5 times a week are healthier than those who do not run, even if the running distance is short. He noticed that there really wasn’t a mass-produced treadmill for common people and so he created one. He was so proud of his invention, he actually sent one to Cooper himself. Dr. Cooper was so impressed that he showed it to some other people until salesmen got interested and the rest is history.

Nowadays there are many different treadmill brands. It would be difficult to find a gym that would not have at least one treadmill of some sort. It was a huge innovation for the exercising world, which helped many people to start exercising. There is one in space too – astronauts are using a special treadmill in the International Space Station to avoid big losses of bone mass and muscle strength.

And now treadmills are also used to maintain astronauts healthy in the International Space Station. NASA, Wikimedia

So, although there was a dark period in the treadmill history, it really was not invented as a torture device. Cubitt’s machine was just an interpretation of an ancient technology used by farmers all around the world.


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