Skip to main content

The treadmill's dark and twisted past - Conor Heffernan


15,506 Questions Answered

TEDEd Animation

Let’s Begin…

The constant thud underneath your feet. The constrained space. The monotony of going nowhere fast. Running on a treadmill can certainly feel like torture, but did you know it was originally used for that very purpose? Conor Heffernan details the dark and twisted history of the treadmill.

Additional Resources for you to Explore

The role of the prison is a topic of great interest to both law makers and the public. Are they meant to punish those who break the law or should they help people so they don't need to break the law again?

In the 1850s, the majority of people who broke the law were sent to prison as punishment. Depending on which prison they were sent to, prisoners could find themselves isolated for hours on end, unable to talk or interact with their fellow inmates. In other prisons, inmates would be given religious instruction and taught how to read and write. The reason for this great variation was that groups in Victorian England often disagreed about the correct way to treat England's prison population. Both agreed that the prison system needed to change, but few could agree about how to do it.

The treadmill was born out of this disagreement as a compromise between those who favored harsh punishments and those who stressed the need for reforming. The treadmill constituted 'hard labour', thereby punishing the prisoners, but it was seen to help rid the prisoners of idleness, thereby reforming their character as well.

Economic Reasons for the Treadmill

Aside from helping to reform prisoners, the treadmill also provided free labour to prison wardens. Originally the treadmill helped to crush grain, power mills or pump out water. This worked well enough in the early part of the 1800s as the English economy was still booming thanks to the early Industrial Revolution.

This all changed with the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 which caused many English laborers to lose their jobs. So dire was the employment situation that by the early 1820s it was decided that prison treadmills would no longer be allowed for business purposes thereby creating work for law abiding citizens. Whilst this decision brought many people back into the workforce, it meant that from the 1830s onwards the treadmills that prisoners spent up to 6 hours a day on were effectively pointless.

Differences between America and Great Britain

So popular was the treadmill that within 50 years of their creation treadmills could be found in over 100 prisons in across Great Britain. It wasn't long before treadmills began to pop up around the greater British Empire and not long after the treadmill found itself in the United States.

However, unlike Great Britain, the United States never really warmed to the idea of the treadmill. One of the reasons being that America had long used 'hard labour' such as cotton picking or rock breaking as a means of punishing convicts. The treadmill therefore offered little new to American prison wardens despite the fact that those who did use it, such as James Hardie, valued the treadmill quite highly. Interestingly, for a period of time slave owners in the South used the treadmill to punish runaway slaves but this was eventually stopped in favor of other forms of punishments.

Next Section »

About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Conor Heffernan
  • Director Yukai Du
  • Animator Jiaqi Liu
  • Composer Cem Misirlioglu
  • Narrator Addison Anderson

More from Inventions that Shape History