In the 19th Century, You Wouldn’t Want to Be Put on the Treadmill

This grueling nineteenth-century punishment was supposed to provide a torturous lesson about hard work

Prisoners walk the treadmill at Coldbath Fields prison in England, circa 1864. Other prisoners are exercising in the yard below. Wikimedia Commons

Long before “treadmill” meant a fancy running machine, the name referred to a nineteenth-century punishment that was sort of like a horrible StairMaster.

“The treadmill was invented in the early 19th century, when penal philosophers were trying to work out a punishment that was just short of the death penalty,” historian Vybarr Cregan-Reid told Simon Worrall in National Geographic. As its history shows, it proved a miserable exercise.

Its inventor, English engineer Sir William Cubitt, thought the labor would help “reform stubborn and idle convicts,” writes Cassie Arnold for Mental Floss. Cubitt, like other prison reformers of his time, thought that prisoners should learn “habits of industry” in prison. And he was willing to put them through hell to accomplish this aim.

To operate a 19th-century treadmill, prisoners climbed stairs attached to a giant wheel. Later treadmills were set up to provide human power for gear-operated grain mills or water pumps, sort of like a water wheel, but that wasn't the point. “It was a useless but exhausting task that fitted with Victorian ideals about atonement achieved through hard work,” according to the BBC. Prisoners would climb the equivalent of thousands of feet on gruelingly long shifts, Arnold writes. “The exertion, combined with poor diets, often led to injury and illness (as well as rock-hard glutes), but that didn’t stop penitentiaries all over Britain and the United States from buying the machines.”

Prison treadmills were first used in England in 1818. The first New York treadmill was installed by the New York City jail in 1822, beginning operation on this day, according to Today in Science History.

The New York treadmill “...was in a two story stone house, sixty feet long, near the prison,” author Hugh Macatamney wrote in a 1909 history of New York. “Every two minutes a bell sounded, and one prisoner stepped off and was permitted to sit still for a few minutes while another took his place. In this manner the operation continued incessantly for several hours.”

Although Macatamney states that the mill was used for grinding food, more recent historians, like Jennifer Graber writing in Quaker History, suggest that inmates were just "grinding the wind." Each inmate climbed the equivalent of about 2,500 feet per hour.

After this installation, Arnold writes that treadmills were installed in prisons throughout the United States, spreading terror in the heart of inmates everywhere. “In 1824, prison guard James Hardie credited the device with taming New York’s more defiant inmates,” she writes. “He wrote that it was the treadmill’s ‘monotonous steadiness, and not its severity, which constitutes its terror.’”

In the United States, Arnold writes, “American wardens gradually stopped using the treadmill in favor of other backbreaking tasks, such as picking cotton, breaking rocks, or laying bricks.” However, treadmill use continued to be widespread in England until it was “abandoned for being too cruel” in the late 19th century, she writes. Penal treadmills were formally abolished in England in 1902.

A late victim of the treadmill was British writer Oscar Wilde, who was sent to prison for his sexual orientation in 1895. Sentenced to two years' hard labor, he found himself working a treadmill for up to six hours a day,” Cregan-Reid said. “It practically killed him. When he came out of prison, he died about three years later.”

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