History of the Treadmill

People running on a treadmill

The treadmill (or the dreadmill). Depending on the type of gym-goer or exerciser that you are, it will either be the most used, loved, revered, disliked or even hated piece of cardiovascular equipment around. It really doesn’t seem like there’s any room for middle ground when it comes to an opinion.

Regardless of how you feel, what isn’t up for debate is just how popular these machines are. Not only is it one of the most popular pieces of equipment on the market, in terms of sales, but entire classes and even boutique studios have centred themselves around the mighty treadmill. It’s also a staple piece of kit that those wanting to become a personal trainer have to master very early on in their qualification. It might not seem like it, but there are many ways in which a person could potentially hurt themselves using a treadmill if they don’t know what they’re doing.

Not only has it proven popular for those looking to get a good workout either, but treadmills (in various modified forms) are also used for injury rehabilitation and can be a great compliment to sports massage, yoga and Pilates for those looking to get themselves back on their feet.

A Brief History

Many cite British prisons as the birthplace of the treadmill and while that period of history is incredibly important to its development, things actually started much, much earlier.

Considering the Romans brought us sewers and sanitation, roads, newspapers and even air conditioning, it probably comes as no surprise to find that they were responsible for developing a precursor to the treadmill. In the 1st century AD, they use a human-powered crane for construction, known as the treadwheel. The unlucky worker would stand inside the wheel and continuous walk in place (just as a hamster would in a wheel). This method of human-powered machinery was a true feat of engineering and it proved so effective that is was used for over 13 centuries.

It wasn’t just humans that were roped into strenuous labour either. Horses, dogs, sheep and goats were placed on treadmills to performing a range of tasks including churning butter, rotating grindstones and most surprisingly, used to powerboats.

Things took a dark turn in the 19th century and the use of the treadmill veered away from being used for construction, transport and household chores and it became an instrument of torture and punishment. Apparently, after being utterly incensed by the sight of ‘idle’ prisoners, ‘visionary’ engineer Sir William Cubitt was inspired to design the ‘tread-mill’.

For countless hours at a time, prisoners would walk along the outside of a rotating wheel. As this was a human-powered contraption and several people were using it at any given time, there was no opportunity for individuals to slow down or take a break. It’s no consolation to the prisoners at the time but Sir William would eventually modify the design so the tread-mill could be used to grind corn and pump water.

It took 85 years before use of the tread-mill was finally abolished.

Treadmill Old Picture

20th Century to the Modern Day

It wasn’t until the 1960s when people started exploring the mass-market appeal of treadmills. Engineer (spot a theme?) William Staub saw potential for the treadmill to become an integral household appliance and thus he developed a prototype, the PaceMaster 600. With financial backing from Dr Kenneth Cooper, author of the seminal book Aerobics, PaceMaster treadmills hit store shelves. In the 1980s, a very respectful 2,000 treadmills a year were sold and by the 1990s, this figure had surged to 35,000.

From the 90s to the present day, the treadmill has been iterated on more times you can count. There have been great strides to improve shock absorption and add those modern quality of life features that you might expect from other types of technology such as smart device connectivity.

Interestingly, while the likes of Peleton and NordicTrack vie to push treadmill technology forward, the likes of Curve, are almost reverting things to the earlier days with their non-motorised treadmill.


Regardless of where your allegiances lie with the treadmill, it’s hard to refute that it has a fascinating history. What’s more, it’s like that the treadmill is here to stay, not just in mainstream gyms and boutique studios but as technology develops, they may even start to become a household item once again.

About the author

Josh Douglas-Walton is the Marketing Manager for HFE, the UK’s leading provider of personal trainer courses and fitness qualifications. He’s passionate about all things health and fitness and enjoys long-distance running in his spare time. He’s also known to be partial to the occasional treadmill workout.


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