History of Treadmills

The first operating treadmill was built in 1875. However, it was not built for running or walking humans to get exercise. It was designed as a way to harness the power of animals to devices such as butter churns, spinning wheels, or water pumps. There were even big treadmills run by horses that were used as threshing machines.

Healthy Heart Treadmill JoggerTreadmill-like devices soon showed up on factory floors where they revolutionized the manufacturing process. A famous early example was at Ford Motors. By the 1920s parts were moved from one area of the factory to another via conveyor belts. They saved so much in labor costs that prices of previously unattainable luxury items became accessible to the mass of society.

It was not until 1952 that Robert A. Bruce, a doctor at the University of Washington in Seattle, got the bright idea to actually put the treadmill belt to use for humans to walk on1. He used it as a stress test, and it can seem a grueling process. At first a patient is put on a slow moving treadmill while being hooked up by electrodes to an electrocardiograph. This monitors the patient's vital signs even as the speed is increased. The resultant data can help to diagnose various heart problems.

This use of the treadmill as a stress test got business people to thinking that the machine might be put to use as an exercise device, hopefully one that was not too "stressful" and would contribute to the health of the user. By the 1960s the treadmill became a vital piece of equipment in gyms and in homes. A common image in cartoons in the 1960s is of George Jetson running the treadmill with his dog, Astro2. People saw treadmills as part of a futuristic life. Indeed, it was an amazing development. Suddenly, people could go for long walks and never leave the privacy of their own home.

Tunturi was one of the first manufacturers to launch their own treadmill design. This was a shop that began as a bicycle maker in Finland. By the 1960s they were becoming a premier manufacturer of exercise equipment. In the United States, an early manufacturer was Aerobics. NASA saw the benefit of advancing treadmill technology and saw it as a useful tool in the space program. In 2000 NASA even installed a treadmill on the space station to help astronauts to keep fit in zero gravity conditions3.

Since the 1960s there have been continual improvements in treadmill equipment. The basic idea has remained the same, but many features have been added, including speed adjustments, fans, heart monitoring, and storage flexibility, just to name a few. As technology advances and more manufacturers build them, high quality machines can be purchased at very reasonable prices. Treadmills have become recognized as a great was to receive a high-quality, but low-impact workout.

< Treadmill Life | Walking and Cardiovascular Health >

1. New York Times
2. Jetsons Movie at Amazon
3. NASA Chronology

Interesting Fact:

It was not until the 1950s that treadmills began to be used for exercise.


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