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RetroScience: The Surprising Origin Story of the Treadmill

Want to travel back in time? In our weekly “Retro Science” series, we’re digging up visual artifacts that capture fascinating moments from science history, including surprising studies, outdated inventions, and breakthrough achievements. By recapturing science’s impressive feats and most amusing flops, RetroScience will remind us of how far we’ve come, and how far we have yet to go.

If you consider a treadmill to be a form of punishment, you’re not alone. In fact, the engineer who created the treadmill had the same idea in the year 1818.


When English civil Engineer Sir William Cubitt invented the “treadwheel,” he didn’t have fitness on his mind.

His device was used to reform convicts.

Prisoners were forced to climb the spokes of a large paddle wheel known as the “eternal staircase.” The resulting energy was used to pump water or crush grain (hence, the eventual transition from “treadwheel” to “treadmill”).

One prison guard claimed that it was the treadmill’s “monotonous steadiness, and not its severity, which constitutes its terror.”

The use of treadwheels was abolished in Britain by the Prisons Act of 1898. Years later, when aerobic exercise became popular in the 1960’s, the treadmill resurfaced. Now, we pay monthly fees to access the contraptions and even turn them into desks.

Read more over at Mental Floss.

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Seandor Szeles

    Seandor Szeles is the co-editor of the Secret Life Blog. He is most interested in the human side of science and providing take-away for educators.