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Column: The Treadmill’s Journey From Jailhouse to Executive Suite

The New York Times recently reported on the rage for standing desks among executives, and particularly on a model that features a treadmill.

The icon of the genre is the Steelcase Walkstation, retailing at $4,399; there’s also a model that includes a chair for $4,799. (In the 1980s, the high-water mark for executive workstations was reached with the reclining Jefferson Chair, the designer Niels Diffrient’s sumptuous $6,500 leather-upholstered lounge chair plus ottoman with platform for monitor and keyboard, inspired by seating at Monticello, Jefferson’s home in Virginia.)

Twenty-five years of health studies have overturned old ideas about premium seating. In the 1950s, the Barcalounger company advertised its chairs as “heart-saving,” based on a theory developed in the 1930s that a floating-in-water position could provide vital relaxation. Some models were sold as office furniture.

Whether medical opinion endorsed the reclining cure even 60 years ago is doubtful, but in the inventor’s archives I have seen scrapbooks filled with physicians’ prescriptions for Barcaloungers as tax-deductible devices.

A 1956 Mechanix Illustrated magazine article with the title “Relax and Live Longer” even featured an executive dictating from an “electric massage table.”

Beginning in the 1990s, experts have turned from finding ways to make sitting healthier, to limiting the time spent seated and developing alternatives. The first medically inspired treadmill desk may have been introduced in 1996. The theory behind the idea, however, was developed later by James Levine of the Mayo Clinic, a physician who originally studied obesity. Levine and other “inactivity specialists” have documented how many chronic ills, from weight gain to high cholesterol and diabetes, can be traced to sitting. In fact, sitting appears to be the new smoking; even relatively brief intervals can be dangerous.

Yet for much of the 19th century, the treadmill was reserved not for elite business owners but for the criminal underclass.

The biologist and writer Stephanie Pain has traced its origin in New Scientist magazine. William Cubitt, a young machine builder and later an eminent civil engineer, was already a renewable-energy pioneer for his self-regulating wind sail when he invented the modern treadmill in 1817-18, creating a wheel of steps that compelled the prisoner to keep powering the device or fall.

Ancient Romans and medieval Europeans had used a kind of human hamster wheel to operate siege engines and cranes, but the operators had walked securely inside a cylinder, and weren’t attempting to keep pace with an external force.

The treadmill was the technological expression of the fixation of the upper and middle classes on deterring crime and promoting industrious habits by breaking the will of prisoners. The phrase “hard labor” had been introduced by a 1779 act of Parliament specifying work “of the hardest and most servile kind in which drudgery is chiefly required” and “ignorance, neglect, or obstinacy” would be impossible.

Cubitt’s device was an almost immediate hit. The first treadmill was built in a Suffolk jail in 1819; two years later, Cubitt constructed a 10-wheel treadmill at Brixton (still an active prison) with a simultaneous capacity of 126 prisoners. Pain reports that a majority of British jails had treadmills by 1842.

Cubitt was no sadist. Fatiguing, meaningless punishments existed before his treadmill. He sought a rational way of powering equipment while supposedly teaching hard work, as well as preventing crime. But using treadmills as a power source for equipment turned out to be impractical, and the system could only keep prisoners occupied and wear them down. In 1823, a distinguished lawyer denounced the punishment to the government as “a system of UNMITIGATED TERROR.”

As the investigative journalist Henry Mayhew wrote in 1862, the treadmill “combines the double moral absurdity of rendering prison labour not only more than usually irksome, but also more than usually profitless. If our forefathers were foolish enough to expect to cure idleness by rendering work a punishment (instead of endeavouring by industrial training to make it a pleasure), it remained for the sages of our own time to seek to impress lazy men with a sense of the beauty and value of industry, by the invention of an instrument which is especially adapted to render labour inordinately repulsive, by making it inordinately useless.”

The system also created work for prison managers. The wheel, as seen by Mayhew, was regulated by powering a giant fan, but that wasn’t enough to keep an even speed, so a regulator like a steam-engine governor had to control the pitch of the fan. Special slide rules were devised to ensure that the workload was uniform among the more than 200 prisons in England.

Curiously, some of the system’s defenders weren’t reactionaries, but a group of reforming Quakers who displayed doctors’ testimonials that treadmill-working prisoners were healthier.

A few treadmills were still in use in the mid-1890s. One was in Reading Gaol, and was made notorious by Oscar Wilde, who was among the treadmill’s last victims; their use wasn’t abolished until 1898.

The treadmill desk should remind today’s privileged executives of the perils associated with technological momentum: How difficult it is to stop a well-intended, but fatally flawed, idea once it has become sufficiently entrenched.

Edward Tenner is author of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences and Our Own Devices: How Technology Remakes Humanity.