We make it our business to know everything we can about treadmills and their benefits. That is why were wanted to share this exciting look into the 2,000 year long history of a machine that is used by millions. So how did the first treadmills come to be? Were they always used for exercise? You may be surprised by the answers…
Yes, you read that correctly.
One of the first recorded uses of a treadmill (aka “tread wheel”) was by the Romans in the 1st century AD. They created a tread wheel crane that used four humans to lift weights of 3000 kg.
The secret behind this clever Polyspastos Crane was a treadwheel in the center that acted much like a hamster wheel. One lucky crane operator would scamper around inside this wheel to power the lifting mechanism.
Believe it or not, human powered tread wheel cranes were used up until the 1900s!
Horse Power Takes Over
There’s a reason that motors have their output measured in ‘horse power.’ Before modern machines, horses and other farm animals provided the power to get things done around the farm.
Farmers in the early 1800s used animal treadmills to perform tasks like churning butter, grinding grain, pumping water, or even kneading dough. An animal such as a horse, ox, goat, sheep, or dog would walk along an inclined ramp that moved as the animal walked. Larger animal treadmills could even power entire sawmills.
Treadmills as a Form of Punishment
An especially hard run on a treadmill might feel like punishment, but some early treadmills were actually designed for this very purpose!
Sir William Cubitt, an Englishman and engineer in 1818, suggested that treadmills be used by convicts in prison. He stated that this would be a way to make use of their muscle power and also ‘cure’ their idleness.
The ‘Everlasting Staircase’ was a large wheel with steps that turned slowly while prisoners climbed endless up and up. They were forced to trudge along for six or more hours at a time often taking more than 6,600 steps.
This is the equivalent of climbing 17,000 vertical feet!
It is said that the boring monotony, not the physical exertion, was the most unendurable aspect of this punishment. This practice was eventually discontinued after The Prisons Act of 1898.
Treadmills Become “Fashionable”
Wealthy flappers of the roaring 1920s lived lives of luxury and excess. They caught sight of some animal powered treadmills from the farm and were determined to bring them into their homes for exercise. The wealthy elite commissioned special machine retrofitted from the animal versions.
These early treadmills had wooden slats, a constant incline, and no motor. They would have been quite difficult to move and tough on the joints without a motor to run the belt.
Not to mention … they didn’t have sneakers back then…ouch!
Medical Treadmills for the Cure
By 1952, the concept of walking or running along a moving belt wasn’t completely foreign. Doctors decided to take advantage of this long used concept to measure the cardiac capabilities of their patients.
Dr. Robert A Bruce and Wayne Quinton of the University of Washington created the medical treadmill to study heart and lung diseases. Patients were hooked up to ECG machines that measured their bodily functions while they ran on the treadmill.
Medical treadmills like this are still used in hospitals, rehab centers and physical therapy clinics around the globe.
Aerobics Enthusiasts Design the First Modern Home Treadmill
Finally, in 1968, the fitness community finally caught on to the full benefits of these machine. In 1968, William Staub designed and invented the first modern treadmill that could be used in a home.
He was inspired by a book on the benefits of exercising called “Aerobics” by Dr. Kenneth H. Cooper. Cooper was impressed by Staub’s machine and helped him develop and market it through his company Aerobics, Inc.
The first treadmill model was called the Pace Master 600.
More Sophisticated Technology
Over the next several decades, treadmill technology has improved significantly. Advances were made in cushioning, incline, speed control, and programming.
Modern treadmills have advanced features like Internet connectivity, color touchscreens, virtual running routes, customized coaching, and motion activated speed control.
The major treadmill brands like NordicTrack, Bowflex, ProForm, Sole, Yowza, and Horizon aren’t done innovating. Each year new models are released with the latest advancements in ergonomics and technology.
Treadmills of the Future
In addition, new variations on the classic design are providing users with more ways to work their bodies and minds.
Bowflex created the Tread Climber to combine the benefits of a treadmill with a stair stepper. NordicTrack’s Incline Trainers provide extreme inclines to make you sweat without excess stress to your joints.
Treadmill desks allow users walk while they work to avoid the many health complications associated with long hours sitting at a desk.
Treadmill bikes, while sometimes appearing quite silly, also offer some surprising benefits to Dutch exercise enthusiasts. Zero gravity treadmills are even used by astronauts on the international space station!
Hydro treadmills are adding water resistance therapy to help horses and dogs recover from injury. Lastly, omnidirectional treadmills are helping military members train in a virtual reality environment.
For 2,000 years, the treadmill has helped humans perform tasks and advance our health. It only seems fitting that new and exciting advancements are still being made as we journey into the 21st century!