The treadmill, a popular exercise machine, was originally built as a punishment for idle prisoners.


According to new book Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human, treadmills have since transformed into a £1.1 billion fitness industry.

The term ‘tread-wheel’ was coined in 1822 by English engineer, William Cubitt, for the giant wheel used to reform inmates.

The machine looked like a giant water wheel and prisoners would be forced to walk on the paddles for eight hours at a time.


Vybarr Cregan-Reid, a senior lecturer at the University of Kent in England, said he was astonished that such a device is now so popular.

“I can’t get my head around the fact that we now pay to run on machines that were the harshest form of punishment, short of the death penalty, for about 100 years”, Cregan-Reid told the Washington Post.

Cregan-Reid also said the evolution of the treadmill mirrored the changing attitudes of society towards health and technology.


When it was introduced in Brixton prison in South London, inmates would walk the equivalent of 1.5 miles for eight hours on the giant 24-spoke paddle wheel.

Also known as the ‘everlasting staircase’, the device could handle up to 40 inmates at a time. The power generated was used to grind corn or pump water.

Its use soon spread to America and in 1824, James Hardie, a prisoner guard in New York, praised its “monotonous steadiness, and not its severity, which constitutes its terror.”

The tread-wheel was outlawed in Britain by the prisons act of 1898 on account of being cruel and barbaric.


According to Cregan-Reid, it again became popular in the US from the 1920s.

The dawn of industrialisation meant that people no longer got physical activity from agrarian work, hence, they needed to exercise to stay fit.

In the 1920s, early treadmills used photos of women in Gatsby-era clothes and heels to make working out look fashionable and luxurious.

The fitness era properly began in 1968 with the publication of Kenneth Cooper’s book Aerobics.


That year, engineer Bill Staub launched the PaceMaster and by the mid-1990s, 35,000 devices were sold each year.

In the present day, almost every single gym has a treadmill and many people have one at home.

Modern treadmills have wifi, TV and you can also listen to music. Some people read books while running and others dance their way through a jog on a treadmill.

Some even have treadmills as their desks so they can work-out in the office.


‘This machine really is the foundation of a lot of people in their lives and their physical activity”, said Tom Cove, director of the US sports & fitness industry association.

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