The History of the Treadmill

Treadmill Running

Sergey Nivens/

By Simon Gould

We take for granted these wonderful machines that enable us to run or walk on the spot at specific speeds. Modern treadmills are very much electric and computerized. They can measure many data points to help you get the most of your workouts. From distance covered, calories burned and heart rate. They didn’t start this way, so I’ll go through the history of the treadmill.

The earliest treadmills

Wikipedia notes that the first recognition of what we call treadmills were in the 1st century. Ancient Romans used equipment to manipulate heavy objects. These were quite advanced feats of engineering for its time. Men would walk on the inside of a hamster like wheel. Connected to this were crane like structures that would work very efficiently considering the amount of energy put into them.

The ancient pyramids were not made using “treadwheels”. The stone was moved using other methods of the time. But you can only begin to imagine how big and quickly they would have been made otherwise. Human powered treadwheels have been in use up to the 13th century to lift heavy stone to make Gothic cathedrals for example.

In the 19th century, treadmills were used to power mills by horses hence the name treadmill. These would be big contraptions where the horse would walk round a central machine that milled wheat and flour. Usually you have water or a windmill doing the work, but sometimes they’re not always available. Domestic versions were soon made to help with laborious manual tasks.

Treadmills as punishment

Treadmills have been used as punishment for crimes where the convicted would have to walk a treadmill which sometimes powered a flour machine. These were considered hard labor and were hated by the criminals. They would occupy the prisoner and make them less likely to have the energy to revolt or cause problems, so it was thought.

There would be rows of prisoners all powering one long treadmill. Sometimes it didn’t power anything and would be used as a penal punishment. There would be a bar for the prisoners to hold onto while they all walked. It was particularly grueling with shifts of 6 hours per day. It was said to be like walking up stairs and they would burn 2,000+ calories a day.

It was due to an increasing crime rate that they introduced treadmills in prisons. They believed it would put people off committing crimes. So they made their stay as unpleasant as possible by introducing hard labor. These prison treadmills were finally abolished in Britain in 1902. Their effect on the crime rate was minimal.

Inventing the modern treadmill

The first patent granted for a “training machine” was patent #1064968 in 1913. This is the first that resembles a modern treadmill for people and designed as a machine to enhance your fitness. There is no evidence to say that this application was commercially viable. When you see the images within the patent you can see why. It looks very complicated and has many moving parts.

The modern day treadmills were arguably invented by Dr. Robert Bruce and Wayne Quinton at the University of Washington in 1952. They were designed to help diagnose lung and heart problems. Treadmills for medical uses can be found everywhere for their help in rehabilitation as well as helping diagnose coronary artery disease.

In 1968 Dr. Kenneth Cooper wrote a book called “aerobics” that sold 30 million copies around the world. Further than that, over the years, he has had over 20 books published many of which promote the cardiovascular and other health benefits to aerobic exercise. Apart from running outside a treadmill is the perfect way to achieve these benefits in the comfort of your own home.

Technology meets the treadmill

The basics of the treadmill hasn’t really changed over the years. You have a belt, powered by a motor, going round a deck. What has changed is the technology, particularly in the console. Where once you were told the speed and distance and that’s all you had to go on. Now you have TV screens and touchscreens, built in workout programs and Bluetooth speakers.

A lot of treadmills can now read the data from a heart rate monitor and change the speed to keep you within a certain heart rate range. This helps you workout more efficiently by making you exercise in the ideal zone for what you’re trying to achieve. Whether that’s weight loss or to increase endurance. Some treadmills have heart rate chest straps included or they can be bought cheaply.

With he advent of fast internet, treadmill brands have embraced new technology. Peloton are a brand that have used the TV screen on their consoles to stream live workout classes for people to follow. These make using a treadmill very enjoyable and help keep you motivated on your fitness goals. Sales of this equipment has grown exponentially over the years.


Today the treadmill has become the biggest selling fitness equipment by a long way. They are quite big and the average US home is perfect in size to fit them. They’ve come a long way since even the 1960’s when they became more widespread. They have a reputation as being boring by some runners, but those who enjoy streaming classes will have a different opinion.

Treadmills are often the most used equipment in gyms. The latest statistics say that 50 million people in the US use a treadmill every year. As we have more disposable income, more and more people can afford one. Their uses today, such as medical and rehabilitation, mean they’re here to stay as part of our lives. Who knows where technology will take them in years to come.

Thinking of buying a treadmill? Here’s my favorite, I always recommend it when asked.

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