The History of Treadmills — From Torture Device to Your Home Gym

The treadmill has three origins stories. One dates to Roman building techniques; another to Victorian punishments for criminals; and finally, to Western scientists seeking to improve heart health. Strange as these histories are, they center on the idea of usefulness. The treadmill has always been used to do something, regardless of its impact on the people who have historically been forced to use it.

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But the treadmill as a tool for the users’ health and pleasure — where you can go for a run because you enjoy running and it helps your body feel good — is quite a new concept. In that sense, the history of the treadmill as we know it today can be traced to the 1960s, when American society and the budding field of exercise science encouraged people to jog. Since then, the treadmill has been ever-present in gyms and homes around the world. 

The Early History of the Treadmill

The earliest recorded use of treadmills dates to 230 BCE when people used treadmill cranes to lift heavy loads. (1) Walking in what looked like a hamster wheel, individuals could hoist hundreds of kilos into the air and move them using pulleys and a rotating axis. 

Without treadmills, moving extremely heavy objects involved pushing or pulling the weight as a group or, if possible, harnessing stronger animals to do the job. With the treadwheel crane, a team of four to six men could to lift hundreds of kilos of weight with relative ease. 

During the eighteenth century, horses in Europe and America walked on flat treadmills for similar purposes to the Roman treadwheel. (2) While the term horsepower existed before the creation of horse treadmills, the term was mainstreamed following the popularisation of this invention. Rather than constructing buildings, the horse treadmills were used on farms to help with cutting or grinding food.

Treadmills in Prisons

As historian David Shayt has written, the original use of the treadmill dates to 1817 when English inventor Sir William Cubitt tackled prison reform by introducing the machines as a torture device. (3) At that time, hard labor was a common tactic to break and “reform” incarcerated people’s spirits. Cubitt created a treadmill, or treadwheel, which forced incarcerated people to work for hours on end (anywhere from eight to 16 a day). (4)

According to some stories, Cubitt created the brutal process after he saw prisoners sitting down in the prison. More practically, it is likely that Cubitt was inspired by a broader productive drive of the Industrial Age. 

Cubitt’s treadmill was more like a StairMaster than a treadmill but with a big difference. Whereas the modern StairMaster uses rather than produces electricity, Cubitt envisioned his treadmill — or tread mill — as a machine that could grind wheat or pump water. (5) The prison treadmill represented hard labor in every sense of the word. 

Cubitt’s machines were installed at Bury St. Edmunds and Brixton Prison and, from there, quickly became popular in prisons across England. Shayt found that by 1842, 109 out of 200 prisons across England, Scotland, and Wales had a treadmill. (3) This mode of punishment also spread to the United States in 1822, where four prisons initially installed it. (3)

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It was not unusual for prisoners to die as a result of the treadmill. Writer and poet, Oscar Wilde, was forced to use the treadmill during his incarceration in the 1890s. Noting his experiences in a poem, Wilde described his punishment thus: (6)

Some even argue that Wilde’s early death at 46 was the result, in part, of his experiences with the treadmill. (7) Whether or not this is true is hard to know. We do know that by the early twentieth century, penal treadmills largely vanished from prisons from U.S. and British prisons. This was not, however, the last of the treadmill. 

Treadmills for Fitness

Patents for personal treadmills as exercise equipment date to the late 19th century. Unlike Cubitt’s treadmill, these devices were more like our modern versions — flat and designed for health. Specifically, the ‘modern’ treadmill was initially concerned with lung capacity and heart health, driven by aerobic exercise.

During the 1940s, cardiologist Dr. Robert Bruce created a medical treadmill with an adjustable motor to test patients’ heart rate and cardiovascular health. Capable of adjusting incline and speed, this was the first iteration of the modern treadmill. (8) The Bruce protocol still exists to test heart health and a series of papers were published by Bruce on using treadmills to study heart health. (9) Still, Bruce did not become synonymous with the treadmill. 

That honor went to Dr. Kenneth Cooper, the physician whose 1968 book Aerobics kickstarted the American interest in jogging. (10) As geographer Dr. Alan Latham wrote, jogging in the U.S. before the 1960s was effectively non-existent. (11) It was not until fears about heart disease and a medical endorsement of jogging spread that it became mainstream. What began as a middle-aged effort to improve health evolved into a youthful regimen practiced by millions. 

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Having read Cooper’s Aerobics, inventor William Staub was inspired to create a treadmill for home use. (12) Naming his company Aerobics Inc., Staub created the Pacemaster, which is generally regarded as the ‘first treadmill.’ Initially used in medical settings, the Pacemaster 600 and its later editions, were sold for home and gym use by the late 1970s.

Staub’s invention came during a time when health clubs were growing in numbers across the country. (13) Staub’s invention encouraged copy-cat exercise machines and, from the 1970s, thousands of different kinds of home treadmills and fitness equipment, from under-desk treadmills to folding treadmills, have been produced. 

Walking Back

The modern treadmill is a hybrid of building practices, prison punishments, and the medical community’s embracing of physical exercise as a method of improving long-term health. This modern-day training machine was cruel punishment in the 19th century, but during the 20th, it was seen as revolutionary. Just something to chew on next time you hop onto your favorite treadmill at home.


Wilson, A. (2002). Machines, power and the ancient economy. The Journal of Roman Studies, 92, 1-32.

McShane, C., & Tarr, J. (2007). The horse in the city: living machines in the nineteenth century. JHU Press.

Shayt, D. H. (1989). Stairway to redemption: America’s encounter with the British prison treadmill. Technology and culture, 30(4), 908-938.

Reid, V. C. (2012). Running Wilde: landscape, the body, and the history of the treadmill. Critical Survey, 24(3), 73-91.

Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline and for the Reformation of Juvenile Offenders (London, England). (1822) Description of the Tread Mill. Invented by Mr. William Cubitt, of Ipswich, for the Employment of Prisoners, and Recommended by the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline.

Wilde, Oscar. (1897) The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Poetry Foundation.

Koeppel, Dan. (2019) The Torturous History of the Treadmill. The New York Times.

Luong, M. W., Ignaszewski, M., & Taylor, C. M. (2016). Stress testing: A contribution from Dr Robert A. Bruce, father of exercise cardiology. British Columbia Medical Journal, 58(2), 70-76.

Kennedy, J. W., Cobb, L. A., & Samson, W. E. (2005). Robert Arthur Bruce, MD: 1916–2004.

Laussade, Alice. (2023) Dr. Kenneth Cooper Is the Father of Aerobics, and You Might Hate Him for It. D Magazine. 

Latham, A. (2015). The history of a habit: jogging as a palliative to sedentariness in 1960s America. Cultural geographies, 22(1), 103-126.

Yardley, William. (2012) William Staub, Engineer Who Built an Affordable Treadmill, Dies at 96. The New York Times.

Stern, M. (2008). The fitness movement and the fitness center industry, 1960-2000. In Business history conference. Business and economic history on-line: Papers presented at the BHC annual meeting (Vol. 6, p. 1). Business History Conference.

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