Saturday, April 10, 2021

From Prison Punishment to a Gym Near You

By Suzanne Norquist

When I work out on the treadmill or Stairmaster, I find myself wondering who invented this unique form of torture. No matter how long I labor, I never get anywhere.

Prisoners in the nineteenth-century would have agreed with that sentiment. For a time, stair-stepper-type treadmills were used to reform (or punish) convicts.

From antiquity, treadmills captured muscle energy for pumping, grinding, and kneading. Three kinds of treadmills existed; those where someone walked in a circle pushing a bar, those where someone climbed in place (think stair-stepper), and a combination of the two with a sloped moving platform.

In 1818, treadmills were introduced into the British prison system as a form of hard labor. Before this, prisoners had occasionally powered treadmills to pump water or grind grain. The new treadmills didn’t produce anything but instead inflicted punishment—many prison sentences prescribed ‘hard labor.’ Straps and weights provided resistance without using the power for anything constructive.

Sir William Cubit, who introduced the devices, hoped to reform offenders by teaching them habits of industry. No need to let them lie around all day.

Original prison treadmills were human-sized cylinders with steps on the outside. The prisoner would step on the wheel, and it would rotate down, causing the man to take a step up—a never-ending staircase. The cylinders were long enough for 18 to 25 men to work the wheel at the same time. Often wooden partitions separated the prisoners.

The men walked in silence for 6-10 hours a day. A prisoner could climb more than half the height of Mount Everest in that time.

By 1865, every male prisoner sentenced to hard labor spent time on the treadmill. In 1895, there were 39 treadmills used in English prisons.

Not to be left behind, a few American prisons adopted the treadmill in the early 1820s. However, they instilled fear in citizens. And often a large audience would jeer at the prisoners as they performed this task. As a result, only four were built, and they were soon abandoned.

America took a more civilized approach to prison reform, requiring labor that produced things, such as handicrafts. This left the person with a trade. Treadmills cultivated no such skills.

By 1900, treadmills were phased out in British prisons in favor of other kinds of activities.

The first patent for an exercise treadmill “training machine” wasn’t issued until 1913. Early treadmills and exercise bikes were used to diagnose heart and lung diseases. The first one for home use, the PaceMaster 600, was developed in the late 1960s.

So there you have it, from prison punishment to a gym near you. At least you don’t have to spend 6-10 hours a day on that machine. Although, if you did, you might be ready to climb Mount Everest.


”Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection
Four historical romances celebrating the arts of sewing and quilting.
Mending Sarah’s Heart by Suzanne Norquist

Rockledge, Colorado, 1884
Sarah seeks a quiet life as a seamstress. She doesn’t need anyone, especially her dead husband’s partner. If only the Emporium of Fashion would stop stealing her customers, and the local hoodlums would leave her sons alone. When she rejects her husband’s share of the mine, his partner Jack seeks to serve her through other means. But will his efforts only push her further away?
For a Free Preview, click here:

Suzanne Norquist is the author of two novellas, “A Song for Rose” in A Bouquet of Brides Collection and “Mending Sarah’s Heart” in the Thimbles and Threads Collection. Everything fascinates her. She has worked as a chemist, professor, financial analyst and even earned a doctorate in economics. Research feeds her curiosity, and she shares the adventure with her readers. She lives in New Mexico with her mining engineer husband and has two grown children. When not writing, she explores the mountains, hikes, and attends kickboxing class. 
She authors a blog entitled, Ponderings of a BBQ Ph.D.


  1. What a fascinating post. I had not heard of this. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you. When I read about it, I knew it was blog-worthy.

  2. Thanks for the post! Very interesting.