I recently realized that the first time the superhero The Flash used his famous cosmic treadmill was in a comic book published in 1961. Just a fun fact. The thing is, as I never really gave a thought about the treadmill, I didn’t know how old this apparatus was. This naturally led me to look into…
Who Invented the Treadmill?
The history of the treadmill started a long, long, time ago. Around 4000 years ago. Treadmills were power sources in antiquity as they were designed to harness human and animal power for various purposes, primarily lifting heavy loads and grinding grain.
There were different types of treadmills at that time. One had a horizontal bar extending from a vertical shaft—animals, mostly ox, or humans would walk in circles around the vertical shaft, causing the bar to rotate and generate power. The rotating motion was used to perform tasks like lifting water buckets. Another one worked like a hamster wheel (and was called a treadwheel), and a third one involved a sloped, moving platform.
They were employed to lift water, grind grain, power cranes, pump water, and operate dough-kneading machines and bellows. They were useful, but the history of treadmills changed in the 19th century to become instruments of punishment.
The Cruel Turn of the Treadmills
English engineer Sir William Cubitt first proposed the idea of harnessing inmates’ bodily strength to both prevent “laziness” and provide “beneficial labor” in 1818. He suggested using the energy of Bury St. Edmunds Gaol’s idle inmates to run on a treadmill.
The punishment treadmills developed by Cubitt included a revolving platform that resembled an unending stairway. On the rotating platform, the prisoners would step up using their own strength. These treadmills were designed to generate power for various activities as well as impose work and discipline among the prisoners. These punishment treadmills had been included in the criminal system in numerous jails in England, Wales, and Scotland by the middle of the 19th century.
On these treadmills, inmates faced arduous walking shifts lasting many hours, occasionally reaching 5,000 to 14,000 vertical feet per day. Although their primary usage was for punishment, certain treadmills were also utilized for useful tasks like pumping water or grinding grain. However, the brutality and physical toll of these instruments became well known, sparking outrage and ultimately causing an end to their usage as punishment devices.
Treadmills for Medical Exercises
For some, treadmills are still punishment tools, but it’s more of a personal perspective. Their purpose changed at the beginning of the 20th century as in 1913, the first US patent for a treadmill “training machine” was issued to Claude Lauraine Hagen. However, it was in the 1950s that the treadmill’s potential for exercise and medical purposes gained attention.
The development of medical treadmills for the diagnosis of heart and lung diseases made them crucial instruments in hospitals. Robert Bruce and Wayne Quinton created the predecessor of the motorized exercise treadmill at the University of Washington in 1952 with the intention of diagnosing heart and lung conditions.
The development of home treadmills and exercise treadmills for commercial use was made possible by research on the health advantages of aerobic exercise, notably the work of Kenneth H. Cooper (a well-known name in the fields of exercise physiology and preventive medicine who created the word “aerobics”). In fact, Cooper’s work helped promote the invention of mechanical engineer William Staub: the PaceMaster 600, the first mass-produced home treadmill. These modern fitness treadmills had motor-driven systems, inclination settings, and changeable speeds to mimic different terrains and intensities.
Designs for treadmills have changed throughout time to meet various purposes. Larger and sturdier treadmills allow for faster speeds and more rigorous training for athletes. Because of their versatility and adaptability, specialized treadmills are being employed for things like aquatic treatment and rehabilitation. And you can go to the multiverse like The Flash if you have a cosmic treadmill and can run faster than the speed of light.