treadmill: a cruel & unusual history

It’s no wonder our perennial New Year’s resolutions to lose weight fail. Working out it can be so punishing–and if you are on a treadmill, that’s historically all too true.

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

In 1822, the London-baed Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline and for the Reformation of Juvenile Offenders published the Description of the Tread Mill invented by Mr. William Cubitt of Ipswich, for the Employment of Prisoners and Recommended by the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline, &c. This short text, which you can read here, is considered by the Oxford English Dictionary to be the earliest attestation for the word treadmill. In the text, the Society discusses the “Tread-wheels of the Discipline Mill” (3).

The prison treadmill. Image from Early American Crime via

Like a waterwheel, this human treadmill was made of boards on which over 20 prisoners would tread for up to 8 hours a day. Their efforts would ground corn for flour, though in reality often nothing. Around 1818, famed engineer and millwright Mr. William Cubitt (later, Sir) did not initially invent this human treadmill expressly for punishment, though he apparently later applied it so. The Society liked its “simplicity,” as it required no instruction, little management, and easy oversight, as well as allowed for what it considered the equitable exaction of prison labor according to criminals’ offenses (5).

The Description records that a prisoner would step 2,193 ft/hr with a 12-minute break over the same time period (5). That’s hard labor indeed, which explains why in 1824, a Reverend Sydney Smith was decrying the treadmill’s cruelty: “The labour of the tread-mill is irksome, dull, monotonous, and disgusting to the last degree” (The Edinburgh Review 304). A treadmill as a metaphor for laborious monotony was already afoot later that same decade.

In spite of these initial protestations against its cruelty, Oscar Wilde did not escape its rotational ruthlessness when jailed in 1895. As he writes in his 1896 Ballad of Reading Gaol By C.3.3., a work condemning prison practices and capital punishment, in particular:

We sewed the sacks, we broke the stones,
We turned the dusty drill:
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns,
And sweated on the mill:
But in the heart of every man
Terror was lying still.*

This form of punishment eventually lost its punitive and practical efficacy. A combination of factors seemed to have spelled its demise in the UK: weak output of ground corn compared to horses or water; the fact that treadmills could employ non-incarcerated men in need of work; and, as with the cause of Sydney and Wilde, its cruelty as a punishment. Some US prisons did adopt the treadmill, but it was never widely adopted, especially in the face of other forms of prison punishment such as cotton-picking or chain gangs.

But the treadmill endured, though in radically different form and though exercisers might disagree with respect to function. Filled in 1911 and approved in 1913, Claude Lauraine Hagen patented a Training Machine featuring a “treadmill belt.”

Hagen’s Training Machine. Image from Google Patents.

In 1949, Dr. Robert A. Bruce lead-authored “Normal Respiratory and Circulatory Pathways of Adaptation in Exercise” in The Journal of Clinical Investigation, where he describes “walking on a motor-driven treadmill,” which technology enabled doctors to regulate patients’ activity for their clinical purposes (1423).

Bruce’s treadmill. Image from J Clin Invest. Nov 1949; 28(6 Pt 2): 1424.

After reading Dr. Kenneth Cooper’s 1968 pioneering book Aerobics, which championed the 8-minute mile for general health, William Staub then pioneered the treadmill for home use, the PaceMaster 600, giving us all the gift of extra closet space for decades to come. Treadmills later joined the home office with the treadmill desk by the 2000s.

A New Model of Treadmill

Now, treadmills are thriving not only because of January gym memberships but also because of their broader metaphorical power. In the 1952 presidential campaign, General and Republican party candidate Eisenhower likened Illinois Governor and Democatric Stevenson’s economic policies to “prosperity” on “a treadmill,” later referred to as “treadmill prosperity.” (The real headline, though, was Eisenhower’s characterization of his opponent as “completely untutored.”)

Today, we speak of hedonic treadmills (the psychological theory dates back to the 1970s; the actual term is evidence in the 1980s and 1990s). We talk of pesticide treadmillsmediocrity treadmillsand even euphemism treadmills. Treadmill is an effective metaphor and useful one, distinguishing itself as a term and conceptual model from feedback loops. (The positive feedback loop in particular can be confounding and is often confounded.)

As a word, treadmill simply joins tread and mill. These will get their own etymological treatment soon. In the meantime, I suggest you avoid the treadmills at CardioTech in North Ipswich in Queensland, Australia. It sounds suspicious on so many levels.

m ∫ r ∫ 

* Wilde, Oscar. “The Balland of Reading Gaol By C.3.3.” The Victorians: An Anthology of Poetry & Poetics. Ed. Valentine Cunningham. Oxford: Blackwell, 2000. 953. Print.

8 thoughts on “treadmill: a cruel & unusual history

  1. I can’t deal with them, I was falling asleep once on one untill I fell off and was abruptly awoken and confused, I still dont really fully understand that experience. Are you a fan?


  2. I love walking on my treadmill, especially in the dead of winter. I put on music and go into my own little world. I don’t think I’d want to do it for twelve hours a day, though.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s