New TED Talk Says Treadmill Was Once a Torture Device

Ever wonder how the treadmill came to be? Who was the person who thought running was great—but would be even better if you could do it without actually going anywhere? It was a prison warden, that’s who.

According to a fascinating new TED talk, the treadmill got its name from a device designed in the 1800’s that forced English prisoners to walk on the 24 spokes of a large paddlewheel, turning it to crush grain, pump water, or power a mill—making them literally tread on a mill. The inmates had to spend up to six hours a day on the ingenious device, climbing the equivalent of 5,000 to 14,000 feet. They had to keep stepping or they’d fall off and risk being crushed or punished by guards. (We do not recommend this method to motivate yourself to exercise! Instead, we dare to try this Fat-Burning Tread Tabata Workout for the Bold and Fit.)

But the “treadmills” were such effective agricultural tools that they were credited with helping turn the British economy around. Within a decade, not only were there 50 such devices in England, but America had also imported the idea. And if you hate the “dreadmill”, you may be channeling some of the prisoners’ pain as it was generally thought of as, yes, a torture device. Combined with scanty prison rations, the daily workouts caused a large number of injuries, pain, and even death.

The physical pain may have been secondary to the mental agony, however, as one prison guard wrote that “the monotonous steadiness, and not its severity, constitutes its terror.” (As anyone who’s had to do some marathon training on an indoor treadmill can tell you, prisoners are not the only ones terrified by its monotony. At least we have Netflix though!) (“Dreadmill” no more—learn how to Get a Better Treadmill Workout with Fitness Tips That Seriously Up the Burn.)

The devices were finally banned in 1898 for being cruel and unusual punishment.

We might never have heard of treadmills again if not for the jogging craze of the 1970’s that brought the machine back and made it a fitness staple. And these days it has evolved into a high-tech and efficient way to get exercise from the safety and comfort of your own home. Plus, the speed and incline settings allow for a customized workout. Most also have luxuries like fans, TVs, and music players—not exactly a torture device any more! (For more reasons to love your treadmill check out these 5 innovations that give us heart eyes.)

And the next time you hop on your space-age, futuristic device, remember how far they’ve come—and how lucky we are to have electric grain mills!

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