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Treadmills of the olden days. History of the Treadmill

You will be surprised to know that a treadmill, currently one of the most popular exercise machines, started as a disciplinary device to reform the prisoners. Or that the first user of the treadmill was not a man but an animal… This brief overview will guide you through the exciting history of treadmill.

The Walking Power Machine

A treadmill was originally a device operated by an animal treading steps of a wheel to do some type of work. The first “home” treadmills appeared in the 19th century when farmers started to use portable treadmills invented for use by animals.

In 1834 a horse treadmill was patented (it’s been a prototype for a contemporary horse treadmill used to train racehorses.

Dog treadmills were quite popular kitchen equipment used to power centrifugal milk separator or a butter churn, or to run a bean sorter or a corn sheller.

dog-treadmill 1800's  

Prison Treadmill

Human powered treadmills were fairly often used in prisons though. The innovation introduced in 1817 in England, the prison treadmill was meant to “reform the offenders” and to turn their power for good.

The prison treadmill was then introduced in America. In on of New York prisons, offenders stepped on the mill for 10 hours a day grinding grain:

history treadmill

 

Fitness Treadmill

It was early 20th century that treadmills were first introduced in the health center as a cardio workout machine. The treadmill was used to test patients for heart and lung disease. In 1933 Popular Science magazine published an article describing how treadmills can be used as a “training track”:

A one-man training track for runners is part of the equipment recently installed by an English sporting club. The device consists of a small treadmill platform with an upright pipe frame in front. Gripping the frame, the runner begins his workout, a speedometer at one side of the apparatus indicating how fast he is going…

1800's exercise machines

 

The first operating treadmill was built in 1875. However, it was not built for running or walking humans to get exercise. It was designed as a way to harness the power of animals to devices such as butter churns, spinning wheels, or water pumps. There were even big treadmills run by horses that were used as threshing machines.

1920 Treadmill Wooden Slats 1920 Treadmill Wooden Slats

 

Treadmill-like devices soon showed up on factory floors where they revolutionized the manufacturing process. A famous early example was at Ford Motors. By the 1920s parts were moved from one area of the factory to another via conveyor belts. They saved so much in labor costs that prices of previously unattainable luxury items became accessible to the mass of society.

It was not until 1952 that Robert A. Bruce, a doctor at the University of Washington in Seattle, got the bright idea to actually put the treadmill belt to use for humans to walk on1. He used it as a stress test, and it can seem a grueling process. At first a patient is put on a slow moving treadmill while being hooked up by electrodes to an electrocardiograph. This monitors the patient’s vital signs even as the speed is increased. The resultant data can help to diagnose various heart problems.

This use of the treadmill as a stress test got business people to thinking that the machine might be put to use as an exercise device, hopefully one that was not too “stressful” and would contribute to the health of the user. By the 1960s the treadmill became a vital piece of equipment in gyms and in homes. A common image in cartoons in the 1960s is of George Jetson running the treadmill with his dog, Astro2. People saw treadmills as part of a futuristic life. Indeed, it was an amazing development. Suddenly, people could go for long walks and never leave the privacy of their own home.

Tunturi was one of the first manufacturers to launch their own treadmill design. This was a shop that began as a bicycle maker in Finland. By the 1960s they were becoming a premier manufacturer of exercise equipment. In the United States, an early manufacturer was Aerobics. NASA saw the benefit of advancing treadmill technology and saw it as a useful tool in the space program. In 2000 NASA even installed a treadmill on the space station to help astronauts to keep fit in zero gravity conditions3.

Since the 1960s there have been continual improvements in treadmill equipment. The basic idea has remained the same, but many features have been added, including speed adjustments, fans, heart monitoring, and storage flexibility, just to name a few. As technology advances and more manufacturers build them, high quality machines can be purchased at very reasonable prices. Treadmills have become recognized as a great was to receive a high-quality, but low-impact workout.

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