The Van Trump Report

Corn and the Interesting History of the Treadmill

Today we associate treadmills with the fitness and gym culture, but back in the nineteenth century, many historians argue the treadmill was actually designed and used as a form of punishment. Invented this week back in 1818 by William Cubitt, the treadmill was actually first created as a human-powered device for grinding corn. It didn’t take long, however, for major prisons to adopt the device as a mode of hard labor that prisoners could do each day to produce something of need and value.

Interestingly, it was at this time that the British began reforming their prisons, as previously they offered their occupants next to nothing, meaning families had to bring in food and blankets, and of course, the bribing of guards was rampant. As prisons began providing more and more necessities, people found the poor committing crimes just to get thrown in jail and be able to get a hot meal and roof overhead. To keep this from happening, the powers that be determined that providing such necessities would need to be offset by labor and ideally labor that was painful and possibly even pointless in order to discourage the poor from trying to get thrown into prison. Thus entered the treadmill, and according to the British Library, The Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline considered it a form of ‘preventative punishment’, reasoning that anybody who had been exposed to it would never risk reoffending. How’d that work out?

By 1895 there were 39 treadmills in use in British prisons. The use of treadwheels was abolished in Britain in 1902 by the Prison Act. I should mention that America adopted the treadwheel in 1822, installing one in Bellevue Hospital in New York City and a second was erected in 1823, for the cost of $3000 at the Old Newgate Prison in East Granby, CT. All told, a total of four were built in the states, three of which were quickly abandoned for being too abusive to the prisoners.

So how did the treadmill we know today come about? One of the biggest changes Americans underwent as the 20th century progressed was how they died. In the early 1900s, the top killers were infectious diseases like tuberculosis, pneumonia, and influenza. By 1910, heart disease had moved into the number one spot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It soon began crowding out other causes of death, growing at a rate that alarmed public health officials and became the most prolific killer in 1921, with cardiac failure accounting for 13.6% of total fatalities. By 1940, that percentage had doubled, and by the 1960s, nearly four in 10 deaths in the US were attributable to heart disease.

So the question became, how could doctors prevent a bum ticker from leading to a trip to the cemetery? And with that began the search for a way to test whether a patient’s heart was healthy. Though Willem Einthoven was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for developing the electrocardiogram (EKG) in 1924 it could be used only to gauge extremes for patients who were totally at rest and not in trouble or for patients who were in cardiac crisis. What was needed was a machine that could gradually raise a patient’s heart rate with a steady workload and could be easily increased and decreased. That gave us the modern-day treadmill test. Soon after doctors and athletes started recommending and using treadmills to train and improve fitness. 

Today, the Sports and Fitness Industry Association estimates that about 53 million Americans use a treadmill at least once a year, and some 28.5 million people are considered “core users,” logging an average of at least one session a week. Bottom line, treadmills have gone from punishing people to helping them improve their overall quality of life and heart health. Personally, every time I approach a treadmill I still see them as torturous and punishing. Thought I’d leave you a chuckle… Click HERE to see a short compilation of the best treadmill wipeouts. (Source: NYT, daily.jstore, wiki)

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