Are you one of those people who daily walk a few miles on a treadmill in order to lose weight, all the while cursing the device as a form of torture? Guess what? A treadmill really was an ingenious torture device at one time. In Victorian London, of all places! In fact, the Victorian Treadmill was a pretty reliable method for punishing prisoners. And by prisoners, I’m not just talking about artful dodgers and shadowy rippers; not only were pregnant women forced to experience its vicious dehumanizing aspect, but young children as well.
The Victorian Treadmill was really a sort of giant cylinder more than it was the streamlined exercise machine that tortures the overweight and the anorexic today. The Victorian Treadmill could be as high as six feet and could stretch so wide that almost forty people could be punished at once. Those people would be separated from each other by vertical partitions, giving them only about two feet of space apiece as they continually stepped on the revolving stairs. How long do you spend on your treadmill? Thirty minutes? An hour? Two hours? Try eight hours! Many prisoners spent a full day’s job on the treadmill, granted a five minute reprieve every quarter of an hour.
This diabolical torture treadmill was the work of one William Cubitt. His first treadmill came along in 1818 and it was specifically intended to be used on the most hardcore of prisoners. The idea was that the monotony would be what really got to them, even more than the tiring labor. (And, in fact, more than a few allegedly went insane.) After a prison sentence spent doing nothing but walking nowhere all day long, it was expected that these men would shape up and do anything to avoid a return to that misery; even something as drastic as getting a job and going to work. Apparently, it proved such a successful method of reducing recidivism that it was extended to include more than just the worst offenders. And just because the aim was to induce the fear of monotony doesn’t mean that the Victorian Treadmill wasn’t utilized for its physical effects. The prison workers could actually control the resistance of the giant wheel by using a large fan. In this way, they could actually increase the difficulty of making their treadmill circle around the way you can increase the tension on a modern day treadmill.
Of course, all this was taking place during the industrial revolution, so the British weren’t content merely to torture their prisoners. This was also the age of utilitarianism, where practical use of a product was regarded as the ultimate accomplishment. Unlike the torture devices utilized by Torquemada during the Spanish Inquisition which had no real use other than to make life as difficult as possible for heretics and Jews and Miguel de Cervantes, prisoners sentenced to the Victorian Treadmill weren’t just being punished, they were serving the larger community outside. Remember now, that the Victorian Treadmill was really a giant cylinder that turned round and round, incessantly, endlessly. In other words, it wasn’t just a treadmill, it was a mill in the most general sense of the word. Therefore, the prisoners unfortunate enough to be sentenced to eternally climbing a stairway to nowhere were, in fact, very often either pumping water or grinding corn. Imagine! A form of prisoner torture that actually accomplished something. Say what you will about the Victorian Treadmill, but you’ve got to admit that using prisoners to produce corn meal beats wasting electricity frying them to death.