The History of the Treadmill

by Tom Higgins

July 11, 2012 // Category: Fun Side of Fitness

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?

Ancient Roman Tread Mill Crane

The “tread mill” also known as the “tread wheel” was first introduced in the height of the Roman Empire, around the late first century AD. When the Romans found they had a need to lift heavier weight, 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. 

Reconstruction of the Roman Polyspastos Crane

The Horse Treadmill

In the 1800’s, 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 force of strength necessary to operate these new stationary machines became known as “horse power” based on the average pulling power of an average draft horse.”

Horse treadmill from C.H. Wendel’s Encyclopedia of American Farm Implements & Antiques

Dog, sheep and Goat Treadmills

Small versions of the horse treadmill were introduced to tackle every day domestic operation. The treadmills produced both rotary and reciprocating powers for use with light machinery like butter churns, grind stones, fanning mills and cream separators.

Nicholas Potter's patented "Enterprise Dog Power" treadmill, designed to power butter churns and other small farm machines, ca. 1881.

Prisons – Treadmills for punishment

During the Victorian Era, British engineer William Cubitt invented the prison treadmill. Installed for hard labor, these treadmills were designed as a means to usefully employ convicts and use their power to be productive. The prisoner would simply work the wheel to produce power to grind corn and pump water, although some served no purpose at all other than punishment. Eventually The Prisons Act of 1889 abolished hard labor and instead recognised that labor within prisons should have a constructive purpose.

Convicts grinding corn at Devizes Prison, Wiltshire in the late 19th Century Copyright  Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, ref: P18051

Medical Treadmills

The first modern medical treadmill was used in 1952 by Dr. Robert Bruce of the University of Washington, a cardiologist who conducted research with co-worker Wayne Quinton to monitor and diagnose various heart conditions and diseases. From his findings he eventually developed the Bruce Protocol, a diagnostic test used in the evaluation of cardiac function which is still used today.

He is known to many as “The Father of Exercise Cardiology”.

Treadmills for Exercise

Bill Staub and Dr. Kenneth Cooper brought the first home exercise treadmill to market through Aerobics, Inc. The popularity of aerobic exercise equipment at home and in gyms grew throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Life Fitness

In 1991 Life Fitness produced its first treadmill, the 9500HR, which took an entire week to assemble. It included the patented FlexDeck Shock Absorption System, which reduces joint stress by up to 30 percent when compared to running on concrete. 

First Life Fitness Treadmill

Technology and Entertainment

Life Fitness introduced the first integrated LCD touch screen console and attachable LCD screen on a treadmill in 2003 and later developed the first cardio products with iPod© and USB connectivity. 

2003 LCD Screen

2007 iPod©  Connectivity

Today, treadmills continue to be the most popular fitness equipment in both homes and gyms. Here at Life Fitness, we manufacture an average of 277 treadmills per day and according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturer’s Association, in 2010 over 50 million treadmills were sold throughout the world. 


 




 
Tom Higgins
 

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