The Use of Treadmills in Pre-Industrial Times:


Treadmills are everywhere – in commercial gyms, households, community fitness centres etc. It is a feat of engineering, designed for walking or running while staying at the same place. Interestingly, the technology was around for quite some time until humans decided to use it for physical training purposes. Some of the traditional treadmills still exist in the remote parts of the world where technology is yet to arrive. They are still used for irrigational purposes, in mills in these places. These days, treadmills are used basically to maintain fitness. It comes with a wide conveyor belt powered by an electric motor or a flywheel. Let’s have a look at how these machines came to be how they are now.

Use in Ancient Egypt & Rome:

The land of Egypt is filled with marvellous and gigantic pyramids, which are counted under the Ancient Wonders of the World. Each stone, that was piled upon one another at certain intervals, weighed tons and were transported from 800kms.

Here we can see one of the earliest application of the treadmill like technology. At this point in history, there seemed to be the existence of two types of tread wheels. The vertical treadwheel was used to grind grains, while the horizontal wheel was used for irrigation, grinding or pulling weights.

The Romans, too, used the ancient treadwheel for construction purposes (Polyspaston Crane & Magna Rola), wherein a wide diameter wheel attached to a mechanism, which was operated by 2 people and pulled stones from the ground.

They were widely used in the Middle Ages for lifting stones to create Gothic Cathedrals, as well.

From the design perspective, the earliest treadmill had a horizontal bar jutting out of a vertical shaft and was moved around by an ox or some other animal. Another design was where the treadmill was powered by climbing on it. It is similar to the modern-day hamster wheels. There was the third design as well, which used a moving sloped platform. This is the actual ancestor of a modern-day treadmill.

Use in the 1800s:

Treadmills, in the 1800s, were used in prisons for people sentenced to hard labour. Punishment treadmills were installed by Sir Williams Cubitt, sensing the prisoners’ idleness and using their manpower to be used in productive work.

The treadmill felt like walking an endless pair of steps supported by a horizontal handrail. Another form was designed where the prisoners had to walk on a wheel, which was further attached to mechanisms for grinding grain, pulling water etc.

The prisoners would climb a vertical height equivalent to 7200 feet. Many prisoners would die in exhaustion combined with a poor diet. Some jail wardens credited the device for taming more defiant inmates. It was banned in 1902 by the British Government, for the device was way too cruel.

Modern Age:

From farm and construction sites, the treadmill first paved its road to households in the 1900s. It was developed by an engineer, William Staub. His prototype was called Pacemaker 600. And from there on, further developments were made to mechanize the treadmill. And now, we have a whole industry dedicated to fitness by using the treadmill. It has also become one of the highest-selling devices in the industry.


It is astonishing to see that a simple treadwheel can be transformed into a complex device like a treadmill. One can hardly imagine life without it. Life has been made easier using a treadmill within the comfort of four walls. But on the other side, the treadwheel is energy efficient and can be further used in the future for renewable energy options. The windmills are a perfect example of that. The future generations can take a note and work on furthering the idea.


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