Treadmills: a torture device?

Treadmill, a machine that can be seen in any gym one steps into regardless of the country one stays in. Treadmill has become an iconic exercise when it comes to the gym. The constant thud underneath your feet. The constrained space. The monotony of going nowhere fast. Feeling like hours have gone by as you slog on it, but in reality, mere minutes have passed by. Running on a treadmill can certainly feel like torture, but did you know it was originally used for that very purpose. Its true the now easy to access treadmill was once used to torture and get troublesome inmates into line.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on

In the 1800’s, treadmills were created to punish English prisoners. It was at a time when the English prison system was abysmally bad. Execution and deportations were usually the punishment of choice and those who were locked away faced hours of solitude in tiny confined filthy cells. So social movements led by religious groups, philanthropists and celebrities like Charles Dickens sought to change these dire conditions that the inmates faced and tried to reform the prisoners and prison system. When the movement succeeded, entire prisons were remodelled and new forms of rehabilitations, such as the treadmill were introduced. Invented by an English engineer, Sir William Cubitt in 1818 the original version was vastly different than the commercial ones we know today. Prisoners stepped on 24 spokes pf a large paddle wheel. As the wheel turned, the prisoner was forced to keep stepping up in order to reduce the risk of falling down, similar to modern stepper machines. Meanwhile the rotation of the wheel made gears pump water, crush grain and power mills, which is where the name Treadmill originated. These devices were seen as a fantastic way to whip the prisoners into shape with the added benefit of powering the mills helped rebuild a British economy that was devastated by the Napoleonic wars. It was win-win situation for everyone except of course the prisoners. It is estimated, on an average that the prisoners spent around six hours or so a day on treadmills which can be an equivalent of 5000 to 14000 feet a day which is roughly climbing Mount Everest to its halfway point. They did so five days a week with little food to energize themselves with. Cubitt’s idea quickly spread across the British Empire and America. And within a decade of its creation over 50 English prisons boasted a treadmill and America also quickly surmounted to a similar amount. Unsurprisingly the exertion combined with the poor nutrition being provided saw any prisoners suffering from breakdowns and injuries but unfortunately prison guards did not seem to care. In 1894, New York prison guard James Hardie credited the device to have taming his most boisterous of inmates claiming that the monotonous steadiness, not its severity is what terrorized the inmates. The treadmills lasted in England until the late 19th century, when they were banned for being excessively cruel under the Prison Act of 1898.

Soon the torture device returned with a vengeance, this time targeting the unsuspecting public. In 1911, a treadmill patent was registered in the US and by 1952 was thrust into limelight with the model that we are so familiar with. As an easy and convenient way to improve aerobic fitness, it soon gained a lot of familiarity in the exercise business.            

Thus is the tale of the torture device that soon became a staple in every corner of gyms and exercise squares.