The Romans used a huge treadwheel crane in the construction of some of their magnificent buildings. One day, while a group of centurions were arguing over the horsepower equivalent of the new Gyro 400, the Visogoths snuck in and sacked the city. The Roman Empire fell soon afterwards. There is a lesson in there somewhere.
The earliest known mention of the word ‘treadmill’, as we understand it, is from 1555, in Les Prophéties by Nostradamus, in which he wrote:
Through industry and craft,
A device for stationary motion shall come to pass.
‘Treadmill’ shall be its denomination
Thus the world will end in conflagration.
See if it doesn’t.
In 1818, a kind of treadmill (or treadwheel) was introduced to English prisons as a form of punishment, as well as to grind corn and pump water. The use of the cumbersome machine was ended in 1902 because it was insufficiently tedious.
Following his conviction for gross indecency, Oscar Wilde was forced to walk such a treadwheel while serving part of his sentence in Pentonville Prison. Labouring on the infernal device one afternoon, he was asked to sum up his situation with one of his customary witty observations. ‘I have often found myself out of step with society,’ he replied. ‘Little has changed.’ He was soon moved to another prison.
George Eliot toyed with the idea of calling her third book The Treadmill on the Floss, but felt such a title might suggest the story moved at a fair old clip, which it does not.
In the 19th century, horses on treadmills sometimes powered farm equipment, but the practice was discontinued because the animals refused to wipe down the machines after use.
The earliest recreational treadmills were considered dangerous to others, so a serious-faced man had to stand several metres in front and wave a red flag to let others know one was being operated and that it might well slip its moorings and go barrelling around the gym.
During the Cold War, the USSR produced millions of cheap treadmills to keep the workers healthy. In 1962, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev insisted the annual May Day parade be led by a thousand elite soldiers running on a thousand treadmills to display to the world the unparalleled fitness of the Soviet army. Afraid to tell their short-tempered leader the treadmills were stationary devices, the organisers did as they were asked, with the result that the five-mile parade was backed up for hours in Moscow suburbs and an intercontinental ballistic missile was stolen from its trailer by some local rascals.
It has been suggested that if an infinite number of monkeys were placed on an infinite number of treadmills, they would eventually begin slinging excrement at each other.
In the 1980s, the home treadmill became a status symbol among City traders, as crucial to their sense of self as red braces, a copy of Phil Collins’ Face Value and a cocaine addiction.
The record speed for treadmill running is 45mph, set by Kansas sprinter-turned-farmer Jake ‘quick draw’ McGraw. A millisecond’s lapse in concentration led to a slip and he shot feet-first from the belt at an astonishing velocity. It is perhaps no coincidence that McGraw also holds the record for fastest self-powered crossing of the – mercifully flat – state of Kansas in a prone position.
The first zero-gravity treadmill was a failure, as it simply floated away.
In 1995, an offroad treadmill was designed. It featured an uneven surface and built-in songbird effects, while small pebbles occasionally tumbled down the belt from a large bin at the front of the machine. The makers thought they were onto a winner, but they had not reckoned on the male testers, who kept leaping off to the left and right to relieve themselves in imaginary bushes. The Road Worrier never went into production.
Several people drowned during the development of the aqua treadmill.
The emergence of the elliptical trainer was thought to mark the beginning of the end of the treadmill. However, most people can use a treadmill with some dignity, whereas everyone who uses an elliptical trainer looks like they’re being slowly chased around a bouncy castle by a furious clown.
This year will see the launch of The Irritator, a treadmill with digital recordings of a male or female voice mimicking an annoying running buddy. Sample sentences:
‘I saw a deer in the park last night. Majestic, if you think about it.’ (Invitation to consider the majesty of something you have not seen is deliberate)
• ‘Alex is doing so well in school. His teacher says he’s a progeny.’ (Misuse of word is designed to infuriate)
• ‘I always say, “The run is not you; you are the run.”’ (What?)
• ‘We can slow down if you want.’ (To be used very sparingly)
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