The treadmill’s dark and twisted past
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, philanthropists and celebrities, like Charles Dickens, sought
to change these dire conditions and help reform the prisoners. When their
movement succeeded, entire prisons were remodelled 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
Source: TED Ed – By Conor