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The Torturous History of the Treadmill

The treadmill is most common exercise machine, but its popularity is almost inversely correlated with its use. People buy one with the greatest of intentions, but eventually end up trying to give it away because it's taking up too much room. Using a treadmill is just too tedious. That was known from the beginning, when the first such machine were developed to punish, er, "rehabilitate" prisoners -and to grind grain. Hence the term treadmill.   

This was considered to be more humane, at least compared with earlier methods of punishment, which centered on hanging or exile to British colonies. Hard labor on a treadmill for a fixed term, the theory went, could rehabilitate an offender, who could then return to society and family. Never mind that the prisoner was often left shattered by the experience. Oscar Wilde spent two years on the treadmill as punishment for “gross indecency with certain male persons.” In a poem about his incarceration, he wrote: “We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns, /And sweated on the mill: /But in the heart of every man /Terror was lying still.” Wilde never recovered from the brutal treatment, and he died three years after his release, at age 46.

The treadmill was less common in America, but several were installed in East Coast cities, including one on the site of what is now New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. That particular machine—housed in a two-story building just off 26th Street, near the East River—was notorious enough that one of its operators, James Hardie, wrote a book about the device. In The History of the Tread-Mill, Hardie noted that it wasn’t medieval-style agony that bestowed such infamy upon the apparatus—the treadmill wasn’t the rack or an iron maiden, after all. It was ennui, stemming from the treadmill’s “monotonous steadiness and not its severity, which constitutes its terror.”

So how did the treadmill go from a device to exploit prison labor to a trendy exercise machine? That story has nothing to do with prison or mills. You can read the history of the treadmill at the Wirecutter. -via Digg

(Image credit: Lennon001)


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