The Sinister Past of the Treadmill

Elad Simchayoff

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TreadmillsSven Mieke/Unsplash

In the 1800s, the British prison system was badly broken. Convicted criminals were slowly rotting away in isolated cells, spending their days doing nothing. Most prisons did not provide prisoners with necessities such as linens or even much to eat. The dire prison situation led to other methods of punishment, either deportation to the British colonies or execution.

The British public was not content with the situation. Social movements formed by religious groups and human rights activists protested against the treatment offered to prisoners. Calls to rehabilitate offenders and reform the prison system grew.

It’s in this atmosphere that Sir William Cubitt grew up. Born in 1785 in Norfolk, U.K., Cubitt came from a family of millwrights. In 1818, Cubbit, who was by then a respected engineer, introduced a revolutionary machine that would help reform and rehabilitate convicts by assigning them physical labor.

The idea behind Cubbit’s ‘penal tread-wheel’ was simple. Up to 24 prisoners would stand on a giant stepped wheel, each holding a bar at chest height or on either side of their body. Every step the prisoners took would cause the wheel to slightly turn, a routine that will cause an endless cycle of movement while staying at the same place.

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Cubbit’s ‘penal treadmill’ at HM Pentonville prisonPhoto: Wikimedia

The giant wheel, which in theory resembles what we now call a stepper or a ‘StairMaster’, was utilized to grind corn, pump water, and power mills, hence gaining the popular name ‘Treadmill’. In some prisons, the treadmill was solely constructed as a form of physical punishment, not having any other useful benefits the prisoners would, as it was known, ‘grind wind’.

According to the British Prison Act, every prisoner over the age of 16 who was sentenced to hard labor would have to spend at least 3 months working mainly on the treadmill. The prisoners would work for 6–8 hours every day, usually stepping for 15 minutes and then resting for 5 minutes before starting again. That meant that the average prisoner did the equivalent of climbing 8,640 ft. (2,633 meters) every day.

One of those prisoners was the author, Oscar Wilde, who was sent to prison for gross indecency due to his sexual orientation. Wilde worked on the treadmill for two years, later writing in “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”:

“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.”
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The penal treadmill in 1837Photo: Wikimedia

The authorities saw the treadmill as a great success. The power created by the prisoners helped Britain's industry recover following the hard-fought Napoleonic wars.

This practice also proved highly useful in terms of deterring convicts from bad behavior. Prison guard James Hardie, who operated a penal treadmill, was so influenced by his experience he later wrote a book detailing the treadmill’s history and various effects on prisoners.

In his book, “The History of the Tread-Mill”, Hardie writes: “[Its] effects, in every instance, proved highly useful, in decreasing the number of re-commitments, as many prisoners have been known to declare, that they would sooner undergo any species of privation than return to the house of correction”.

Hardie adds: “It is its monotonous steadiness and not its severity, which constitutes its terror, and frequently, breaks down the obstinate spirit”.

In 1822 the penal treadmill made its way into the U.S. as well, with 4 prisons constructing their own version of the device. In the U.K., By the mid-1800s, there were dozens of treadmills and cranks, being used in more than half of the country’s prisons.

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“The History of the Tread-Mill” by James Hardie

Towards the end of the century, the debate surrounding the penal treadmill grew louder. A British Medical Journal article titled Death on the Treadmillcited a very high death rate, one person a week, among prisoners suffering from heart disease. A member of the British parliament challenged the secretary for the home department saying that the practice was “cruel and unprofitable”.

The public protest was successful. By 1901, there were only a handful of treadmills used in British prisons. In 1902, the use of this penal practice was completely banned.

In 1939, inventor John Richards patented a treadmill-like device for walking dogs. Dr. Robert Bruce, a cardiologist from Washington, added a motor and by conducting experiments found there are health benefits of conducting a treadmill workout. This marked the beginning of the ‘home treadmill’ trend that we know today.

Today, it is estimated that 53 million Americans use a treadmill at least once a year. 28.5 million Americans have at least one weekly session. Many of which would tell you that although used in fancy gyms and apartments, not in prisons, the treadmill is still very much a torture device.

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I love writing about what I love. Journalist. Always curious. Israeli born, London based. Father, Husband, and a dog person.

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