The Surprising History Of Treadmills

history of treadmills

Today, the treadmill is the most popular piece of fitness equipment, found in homes and health clubs around the world. But where did this great cardiovascular machine come from? That is a surprising history of treadmills.

Ancient Roman Tread Mill Crane

The “tread mill” also known as the “tread wheel” was first introduced at the height of the Roman Empire, around the late first century. When the Romans found they had a need to lift heavier weights, they incorporated the treadmill, replacing the winch in their cranes. The men would walk within the wheel itself and because the treadmill had a larger diameter, they were able to lift double the weight with half the crew.

The Horse Treadmill

In the 1800s, when stationary machines were powered by unreliable natural sources like wind and water, farmers were in need of a more consistent power source. They found that a treadmill machine could capture the “brake” power of a horse. According to historian Brian Wells, “the unit of measurement of the force of strength necessary to operate these new stationary machines became known as “horsepower” based on the average pulling power of an average draft horse.”

Dog, Sheep, and Goat Treadmills

Small versions of the horse treadmill were introduced to tackle everyday domestic operations. The treadmills produced both rotary and reciprocating powers for use with light types of machinery like butter churns, grindstones, fanning mills, and cream separators.

Dog Treadmill
Dog Treadmill

The Treadmill and Prisons

In his 1912 book “Curious Bits of History,” author Albert William Macy notes that the treadmill was invented in China and later adapted by civil engineer William Cubitt to serve as a prison labor device.

Cubitt is credited with inventing the “treadwheel,” which was made of two wheels connected by interlocking cogs.

The treadwheel initially served as a device for pumping water and grinding corn. However, shortly after its development, it went on to become a tool for punishment.

In the 1800s, treadmills had a place in numerous prisons worldwide, where they served as “atonement machines.” In England, Scotland, and Wales, 109 out of 200 jails featured them. Four prisons in New York, Connecticut, Philadelphia, and Charleston also utilized them.


Since it wasn’t motorized, the machine’s movement relied on the prisoner’s weight, which pushed down on one step, causing another to line up for the user’s foot. It was more akin to what a Stairmaster is today, requiring prisoners to climb up an endless flight of stairs that lead to nowhere. Wardens hoped that using the treadmill would cause prisoners to suffer and, therefore, walk away with a life lesson. In some instances, the energy of the treadmill was used as a water pump.

Treadmills fell out of favor relatively soon after they were introduced in the United States. “Collective industry,” which involved using prisoners as factory workers, became a more popular method of making prisoners repent for their sins.

Treadmill-Team Sports
Treadmill-Team Sports

The Treadmill as a Fitness Tool

It wasn’t until the 1900s that the treadmill began its transition to being used as a health and fitness tool.

In 1910, the Centers for Disease Control released reports showing that “diseases of the heart” were the primary cause of death in the U.S. In 1913, Claude Lauraine Hagen received a patent for the “training machine,” which was his version of the treadmill.

A few decades later, in response to ongoing concerns about heart disease, a cardiologist named Robert Bruce introduced “the Bruce protocol.” This approach tested patients’ heart health by hooking them up to electrocardiograms as they walked on a treadmill. Army physician Kenneth Cooper went on to adopt this approach and used it to test pilots and contenders for the space program.

Cooper continued his efforts for over 20 years. In 1968, he published a book titled “Aerobics,” which introduced his own method of running-based exercise. Cooper is still known as “the father of aerobics.”

His commitment to the treadmill and its fitness-promoting potential has contributed to the proliferation of treadmills. They’re some of the most famous pieces of fitness equipment in the world and can be found almost anywhere, from gyms and hotels to people’s living rooms (where they may or may not serve as coat racks).

The Modern Treadmill

The treadmills of today look very different from the treadmills of yesteryear. Modern treadmills feature many exciting features, including the option to adjust the speed, resistance, and incline. Some also include tools to help walkers and runners know how many calories they’re burning, as well as screens that provide entertainment in an effort to make workouts more enjoyable.

Modern Treadmill
Modern Treadmill

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Fitscode Fitness Company

Fitscode Fitness Company

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