The treadmill’s dark and twisted past – Conor Heffernan

The treadmill’s dark and twisted past – Conor Heffernan


The constant thud underneath your feet, the constrained space, and the monotony of going nowhere fast. It feels like hours have gone by,
but it’s only been eleven minutes, and you wonder, “Why am I torturing myself? This thing has got to be considered
a cruel and unusual punishment.” Actually, that’s exactly
what it is, or was. You see, in the 1800s, treadmills were created
to punish English prisoners. At the time, the English prison system
was abysmally bad. Execution and deportation
were often the punishments of choice, and those who were locked away
faced hours of solitude in filthy cells. So social movements led by
religious groups, philanthropies, and celebrities, like Charles Dickens, sought to change these dire conditions
and help reform the prisoners. When their movement succeeded, entire prisons were remodeled
and new forms of rehabilitation, such as the treadmill,
were introduced. Here’s how the original version, invented in 1818 by English engineer
Sir William Cubitt, worked. Prisoners stepped on 24 spokes
of a large paddle wheel. As the wheel turned, the prisoner was forced
to keep stepping up or risk falling off, similar to modern stepper machines. Meanwhile, the rotation made gears
pump out water, crush grain, or power mills, which is where the name
“treadmill” originated. These devices were seen as a fantastic
way of whipping prisoners into shape, and that added benefit of powering mills helped to rebuild a British economy
decimated by the Napoleonic Wars. It was a win for all concerned,
except the prisoners. It’s estimated that, on average, prisoners spent six
or so hours a day on treadmills, the equivalent of climbing
5,000 to 14,000 feet. 14,000 feet is roughly
Mount Everest’s halfway point. Imagine doing that five days a week
with little food. Cubitt’s idea quickly spread
across the British Empire and America. Within a decade of its creation, over 50 English prisons
boasted a treadmill, and America, a similar amount. Unsurprisingly, the exertion combined
with poor nutrition saw many prisoners suffer breakdowns
and injuries, not that prison guards seemed to care. In 1824, New York prison guard
James Hardie credited the device with taming his more
boisterous inmates, writing that the “monotonous steadiness, and not
its severity…constitutes its terror,” a quote many still agree with. And treadmills lasted in England
until the late 19th century, when they were banned for being
excessively cruel under the Prison’s Act of 1898. But of course the torture device
returned with a vengeance, this time targeting
the unsuspecting public. In 1911, a treadmill patent
was registered in the U.S., and by 1952, the forerunner for
today’s modern treadmill had been created. When the jogging craze
hit the U.S. in the 1970s, the treadmill was thrust
back into the limelight as an easy and convenient
way to improve aerobic fitness, and lose unwanted pounds, which, to be fair,
it’s pretty good at doing. And the machine
has maintained its popularity since. So the next time you voluntarily subject
yourself to what was once a cruel and unusual punishment, just be glad you can control
when you’ll hop off.

4 comments on “The treadmill’s dark and twisted past – Conor Heffernan

  1. Sight C Post author

    And yet, we still have public schools which basically doesn't changes for decades and tortures us by feeding us useless data for 8 hours straight when many students doesn't take a slight interest in the things they throw because their career choices isn't something that involves abstract math and because we won't have the basic needs and function to use calculator and basic maths. But the old generation still wants us to experienced something better than them so that's okay.

    Reply

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