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On the treadmill

01:00 Fri 05th Apr 2002 |

Q. What was the treadmill

A. It was a piece of prison hardware designed as a disciplinary tool. Also known as the treadwheel, it consisted of a horizontal shaft with steps on it. Those being punished were required to 'tread' on the steps thus rotating the shaft, which in turn, through a system of gears, could function in a similar way to a windmill or watermill. The drudgery of the job has given rise to the modern idiom for a monotonous routine. It was designed by William Cubitt.

Q. William Cubitt

A. A 19th-century British industrial designer who also came up with a new, more efficient design for windmill sails in 1807. His expertise with mills led to his being involved in the contrivance of the human treadmill.

Q. When was his design introduced into British prisons

A. In the 1820s. By 1824 one Syndey Smith, a critic of the punishment, was moved to write: 'The labour of the tread-mill is irksome, dull, monotonous and disgusting to the last degree.' So, even by the standards of the day, it was a pretty tough assignment.

Q. What was it used for

A. The theory was that convict-labour could be utilised to grind corn or turning machinery, while at the same time issuing a warning to all potential trouble-makers within the prison system.

Q. And did it work

A. As an industrial tool, apparently not. The London-based Daily News reported in 1887 that the contraption was of little use as 'the authorities recently declared that they could buy flour cheaper than they could grind it'. But as a punishment a spell on the treadmill - not to speak of the physical abuse by the guards of anyone who didn't keep up - was feared by all, as the words of the following song show: 'Oh, stop the mill, stop it I pray, / For I have been treading a good deal today. / My head is quite sore from the thumps I've received / And my bones ache so much that sorely I'm grieved.'

Eventually the treadmill was decommissioned, not least because of one fundamental inequality, as described by one contemporary source: 'The weak and strong are by it compelled to equal exertion.'

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By Simon Smith

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