Perhaps no piece of cardio equipment has had a more storied—or diverse—history than the treadmill. In fact, before anyone ever got on one to improve cardiac performance or endurance, animals and prisoners were the machine’s chief users.
Ancient Roots and Animal Power
The origins of the treadmill are not in exercise, but in engineering and labor.
In “History of the Treadmill,” author Josh Douglas-Walton writes: “In the 1st century AD, the Romans used a precursor to the treadmill, known as the treadwheel or polyspaston (Latin for ‘hoisting tackle with pulleys’) crane. This human-powered device was essentially a large wheel attached to a crane. Used in place of a traditional winch, men would walk continuously within a large hamster-like wheel.”
In this case, the movement of the wheel would cause the attached crane to lift heavy objects. Based on the wheel’s diameter, the treadwheel crane was around 60 times more efficient than the purely man-powered construction methods previously used by the Ancient Egyptians to build the pyramids.
The human-powered treadwheel remained a key piece of machinery up through the 13th century, with a form factor that still closely resembled that of a waterwheel.
“In the 19th century,” notes Douglas-Walton, “horses were placed on treadmills to operate stationary machines when renewable power sources like wind and water weren’t available. In rare instances, horse treadmills were used to power boats, particularly on the east coast of the United States. This iteration of the treadmill featured a horizontal belt that more closely resembles the models we know today.”
Later in the century, the horse-powered treadmill was adapted for a range of domestic uses. Smaller versions were developed for dogs, sheep, and goats for such tasks as operating butter churns, grindstones, fanning mills, and cream separators.