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Prisons and Punishments: The Failure of the Treadmill in America

In 1822, when the American press began to circulate articles praising the use of a new invention in England that would instill fear in convicted felons and turn them into productive citizens, politicians, prison officials, and the press in America took notice. The invention was a treadmill, a large, long cylinder equipped with steps that prisoners would cause to rotate in a motion akin to walking up stairs that would grind corn, pump water, or perform other tasks that required mechanical power.

A few prisons in America quickly adopted the idea, and officials from other prisons eagerly waited to see if the treadmill as a punishment would match the glowing reports of its use that were coming out of England.

Adoption of the Treadmill in America

Treadmill - small

One of the first prisons to adopt the treadmill was the Bellevue County Penitentiary in New York City, located where 26th Street meets the East River, in 1822. Thirty-two convicts on two machines rotated the barrel-like contraptions through stepping motions, and every completed rotation of a cylinder caused a bell to ring. With this device, the convicts could grind 40-60 bushels of corn, which fed both the prisoners and residents of an almshouse.

The idea of using treadmills in prisons intrigued the Governor of Massachusetts, who called for an investigation into its possible use during his annual address to the Massachusetts Legislature in 1823. As a follow-up to this inquiry, an official at the Bellevue Penitentiary declared that early indications show the treadmill to be “one of the most successful of inventions.” He reported that while the prisoners were engaged on the treadmill, they hardly spoke a word to each other, and that even when they were resting they were too fatigued to engage in conversation. He described the atmosphere created by the treadmill as “orderly and submissive” and added that it required little supervision. He concluded that when the treadmill is combined with solitary confinement, the two punishments “furnish the most salutary punishment and the most powerful detriment from crime that the lenient spirit of our laws admits.”

Elsewhere, in the spring of 1823, the Connecticut Legislature passed a resolution to appropriate $3,000 to erect a treadmill in the Newgate state prison in Simsbury, CT. In general, convicts at this prison spent their time behind bars practicing traditional crafts, such as blacksmithing, shoemaking, and stone cutting. Prisoners who did not ply a trade usually worked as waiters and common laborers, but now they could also be put on the treadmill.

Newgate Prison, CT - 1890

Newgate Prison, CT – 1890

In a report commissioned by the Connecticut Legislature on the prison’s conditions one year later, the committee contended that use of the treadmill in the prison was too new to draw firm conclusions about its effects, but it did acknowledge that it is a “powerful instrument” that could easily be used to abuse prisoners if put in the hands of the wrong supervisor. The committee asked a physician to assess the treadmill’s health risks, and he concluded that there were none. The report pointed out that the treadmill was particularly useful for employing convicts who were scheduled for short stays in the prison–where setting them up with a trade would be a waste of time–and concluded that the treadmill was an effective mode of punishment, because it is “peculiarly irksome; requiring a severe exertion of the body, but furnishing no employment of the mind.”

Bad Reviews

For the most part, newspaper reports about the use of treadmills in prisons were generally positive if not glowing. But a few reports also appeared that questioned the effectiveness of the punishment.

In March 27, 1823 the Baltimore Patriot published a report out of England about the first time a treadmill was put into motion in a prison in Reading. All appeared to be going well during the first few days of its operation until 1:00 p.m. on a Monday, when all 32 of the prisoners refused to go on the wheel unless they received more food and leather-bottomed shoes. The article reported that the men were under the impression that the worst punishment that would befall them for their work stoppage would be confinement in their cells, but the prison keeper and his assistants used “arms and bludgeons” to compel the men to return to work.

One year later, another report from England appeared in an American newspaper that highlighted the negative aspects of treadmills. The criticism came from the Edinburgh Review in its assessment of the use of treadmills in a prison in North Riding of Yorkshire in northern England. The reviewer called treadmills the “new magistrates plaything” and went on to write a scathing critique of its use:

The labour of the tread-mill is irksome, dull, monotonous, and disgusting to the last degree. A man does not see his work, does not know what he is making; there is no room for art, contrivance, ingenuity and superior skill–all which are the cheering circumstances of human labor. The husbandman sees the field gradually subdued by his plough, the smith beats the rude mass of iron by degrees into its meditated shape, and gives it its mediated utility: the tailor accommodates his parallelogram of cloth to the lumps and bumps of the human body, and holding it up, exclaims, ‘this will contain the lower moiety of an human being.’ But the treader does nothing but tread; he sees no change of objects, admires no new relations of parts, imparts no new qualities to matter, and gives it no new arrangements and positions; or if he does, he sees and knows it not, but is turned at once from a rational being, by a justice of peace, into a primum mobile [literally, “first moved”: the outer moving sphere of a geocentric model of the universe], and put upon a level with a rush of water or a puff of steam.

Such critiques of treadmills in American newspapers, though, were rare. But the enthusiasm of the press in the use of treadmills did not translate into their broad adoption in American prisons. Indeed, only four prisons in America ever employed treadmills, and in three of the four cases, the prisons quietly left their treadmills behind only a few years later when new prison facilities opened up to replace them.


England widely embraced the use of treadmills in its prisons from the time of its invention in 1822 to the early 20th century. In 1895, Oscar Wilde was even put to work on a treadmill after he was convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to a two-year prison term. But if the treadmill was successfully adopted in England and showed so much promise in regulating the behavior and work of prisoners, then why did it fail to take hold in America?

David H. Shayt from the Smithsonian Institute believes the answer lies in the different need for work and the different attitudes toward prison labor between the two countries. After the Revolution, as America broke away from England and its influence on the American criminal justice system, American reformers in the early nineteenth century looked to Enlightenment philosophy for new ways to address the problem of crime and criminals. As a result, corporal and capital punishment was replaced by long periods of incarceration, where criminals spent their time reflecting on their bad behavior and interacting only with “good men”—i.e., members of the clergy and prison staff—in an attempt to reform them.

In a country like America, where liberty is highly valued, spending long periods of time behind bars was increasingly seen as an appropriate form of punishment for serious crimes. Attention now focused on how prisoners spent their time, with a preference for isolation, silence, and rigorous manual labor to keep them from sinking into idleness.

In both England and America, prison officials sought to use the labor of their convicts to offset the costs of housing them, and perhaps even to make a profit. In America, prisoners spent most of their time locked in their cells performing handicrafts to earn their keep. The idea was to turn the convicts into productive members of society by the time they finished their sentences.

The treadmill had the advantages of being able to regulate and measure precisely the productivity of convicts–longer intervals between the ringing of the bell meant their pace was slackening–and no special skills were required to operate it. But here is where the treadmill failed miserably in America. This latter “advantage” in the eyes of the American criminal justice system was perceived as a liability. The treadmill could not demonstrate any long-term benefit for the prisoner, who merely served as a power source. It did nothing to turn that prisoner into a productive worker.

Treadmills also turned out to be a poor use of potentially productive prison labor, especially in America where any form of labor was relatively scarce at the time. Convicts in America were already producing shoes, clothing, hardware, furniture, and other goods from raw or semi-finished goods brought into the prisons. To take this highly productive labor force and put them on a relatively inefficient treadmill would have seemed like folly.

In the end, treadmills turned out to be more of a psychological tool–by making prisoners mindlessly turn a large wheel for hours at a time–than a productive one and functioned more as a means for retributive justice than for reforming convicts. Americans valued productivity so much that even wasting it in the form of convict labor was an idea that simply could not take hold.


The advantages of the treadmill as a device that requires great physical effort with little necessary skill–and that measures accurately the productivity of its users–did not entirely go to waste. Today, treadmills (now known as Stairmasters or stepping machines) are staples at gyms and health centers, where users can measure the number of steps they take, the speed in which they take them, the calories they burn, and more. Few people realize that these popular pieces of exercise equipment trace their beginnings back to early prisons and punishment.

The original users of treadmills in the nineteenth century were compelled to rotate their cylinders; today, people seeking physical fitness pay for the privilege to do so.

The author on a "Treadmill"

The author on today’s “Treadmill”


  • American Mercury, February 28, 1826, vol. XLII, issue 2174, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • Independent Chronicle and Boston Patriot, January 4, 1823, vol. LVII, issue 4351, p. 4. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • “The Reading Tread-Mill.” Baltimore Patriot, March 27, 1823, vol. XXI, issue 66, p. 1. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • Salem Gazette, June 6, 1823, vol. I, issue 45, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.
  • Shayt, David H. “Satairway to Redemption: America’s Encounter with the British Prison Treadmill. Technology and Culture 30:4 (Oct., 1989), 908-938.

Prisons and Punishments: The Treadmill Song

Treadmill - small

From the Amateur
The Treadmill Song

The stars are rolling in the sky,
The earth rolls on below,
And we can feel the rattling wheel
Revolving as we go,
Then tread away, my gallant boys,
And make the axle fly;
Why shouldn’t wheels go round about,
Like planets in the sky?

Wake up, wake up, my duck-legged man,
And stir your solid pegs;
Arouse, arouse, my gawky friend,
And shake your spider legs;
What though you’re awkward at the trade,
There’s time enough to learn–
So lean upon the rail, my lad,
And take another turn.

They’ve built us up a noble wall,
To keep the vulgar out;
We’ve nothing in the world to do,
But just to walk about;
So go it now, you middle men,
And try to beat the ends–
It’s pleasant work to rumble round
Among one’s honest friends.

Here, tread upon the long man’s toes,
He shan’t be lazy here–
And punch the little fellow’s ribs,
And tweak that lubber’s ear–
He’s lost them both–don’t pull his hair,
Because he wears a scratch,
But poke him in the further eye,
That isn’t in the patch.

Hark, fellows, there’s the supper bell,
And so our work is done;
It’s pretty sport–suppose we take
A round or two for fun.
If ever they should turn me out,
When I have better grown,
Now hang me, but I mean to have
A treadmill of my own.

Even though the tone of this poem is satiric, it still does not convey the true working conditions of the treadmill. Time spent on the treadmill was mind-numbing. This boredom combined with fatigue could often lead to injury. While the fact that those working the treadmill had no idea whether their labor was productive or not was lauded by its advocates–if the grain supplies being milled with the treadmill ever ran out, for example, the punishment could continue on–critics of the treadmill pointed out that the prisoners never saw or experienced the fruits of their labor, and consequently could not derive any satisfaction from it.

To reduce fatigue, convicts regularly traded working on and off the treadmill at regular intervals, but they were subjected to this exhausting punishment for hours at a time. There were no standards in the construction of the treadmills or in the time convicts spent on them, so what was considered reasonable punishment was left to the discretion of the individual jail wardens. Naturally, some wardens had different ideas of what constituted reasonable punishment and were more brutal than others.


  • Norwich Courier, September 22, 1830, vol. IX, issue 26 p. 4. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.

Saddened and Angered by the Newtown Tragedy?: Join Me in a Simple Act

Over the years of writing this blog, I have resisted as much as possible the temptation to use this forum as a means of promoting my political views. But the mass shooting at the elementary school in Newtown, CT last week is a tipping point. My sadness for the families of the victims in this tragedy and my anger over a political climate where our country’s leaders cannot so much as hint at discussing gun control without fear that the National Rifle Association (NRA) will organize heavily against them forces me into action.

I am not going to use my blog to address specific arguments about gun control laws; it is my hope that such a discussion will take place in other, more appropriate, media outlets. But I am tired of the seemingly unfettered power of the NRA and how its logically fallacious “slippery slope” arguments have effectively limited political speech and discussion of gun regulation.

If you, like me, are angered by our current political environment–where both mass shootings and daily killings appear to be repeatedly tolerated in the absence of sensible debate over meaningful steps that we can take to limit such senseless gun violence–please consider following my lead. A one-year membership in the NRA costs $35.00, and a “Junior Membership” costs $15.00. In my humble attempt to provide an antidote to this powerful lobbying organization, I am donating the equivalent cost of a one-year membership to the NRA to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence for myself and for each of my family members.


One hundred percent of the money donated to the Brady Campaign goes towards passing gun control legislation (consequently, the money is not tax deductible). But $3.75 of NRA membership dues goes towards a subscription to a magazine put out by the organization; Junior Members receive a special subscription to a magazine called Insights, which is specifically written for those under the age of 15. In addition, NRA members receive an “official NRA members-only Shooter’s cap,” as well as an NRA decal. So I figure that because the Brady Campaign does not offer similar “perks” for supporting its lobbying efforts, the money I donate will have a proportionally greater influence on politicians than would a regular NRA membership.

My contribution is modest, but if more people join me in this simple act and encourage others to do the same, perhaps we can have an impact on changing gun laws so that all our families can live in a safer world. Please donate an “NRA equivalent membership” ($35.00 or $15.00) either to the Brady Campaign or to some other worthy organization interested in spurring debate on, or advocating for, gun control laws. The shootings in Newtown, CT and elsewhere demand action, or, at the very least, meaningful debate. Do not, like I have until now, sit on the sidelines and allow the NRA to set our country’s gun control agenda while more tragedies involving guns occur every day.

Prisons and Punishments: Inventive Ways to Cut Prison Costs

Cutting government budgets is on the minds of almost everyone nowadays. All levels of government seem to have empty coffers and are looking for new ways to save money in the midst of persistent societal needs. This situation is prompting many state governments to reexamine how they punish their criminals and to look for creative ways to reduce the heavy burden that strict sentencing laws and mass incarceration over recent years has had on taxpayers.

A Long and Vexing Problem

On November 10, 2012, the New York Times drew attention to these new approaches by publishing an editorial entitled, “How to Cut Prison Costs,” which supported steps taken by various states to contain expenditures on prisons by reducing recidivism through expanded drug treatment programs, improved post-prison supervision, and retooled parole systems.

Chip Corwin, a third-year student at the University of Wisconsin Law School, responded to the NYT editorial by arguing that along with implementing these cost-cutting programs, we as a society need to rethink the use of lengthy prison terms as punishment and should instead put away only those who “pose a grave risk to public safety.” He called for a new emphasis on “results over retribution,” a philosophical change that he maintained could restore communities, aid in paying restitution to victims, and “could frustrate the private prison industry’s unconscionable efforts to profit off mass incarceration.”

The New York Times asked readers to write responses to Corwin’s letter and published the resulting dialogue under the heading “How We Punish Crime.” All of the published letters supported Corwin’s view and added even more ideas for how to reform our dysfunctional U.S. prison system.

The issue of how to punish criminal offenders has long been a vexing problem. Today in our Age of Budget Cutting, government officials are using the need for cost savings to find new and better ways to deal with convicted felons. So perhaps it is natural that government officials in the Age of the Industrial Revolution turned to machinery for help in solving their prison problem.

An Industrial Solution

Beginning in 1822, a celebratory article began to appear in numerous American newspapers that described a device invented in England and recommended by the Society for the Improvement of Prison Discipline. This new machine, the article claimed, would solve once and for all the problem of employing prisoners and act as a preventive punishment that would sharply reduce the prison population and save the state money.

The invention was a treadmill, or treadwheel. The idea was to have a line prisoners step on boards attached to the sides of a long cylinder in the form of a paddle wheel, which would in turn provide power for grinding wheat or corn or for pumping water up from the ground. The effect for the prisoners would be like climbing an endless flight of steps, in the way that modern-day step machines function in health clubs today. (Suddenly, I have a great idea for a new revenue stream for gyms!)

The Salem Gazette, October 25, 1822 (From Early American Newspapers, an Archive of Americana Collection, published by Readex (, a division of NewsBank, inc.)

The treadmill was the invention of Samuel Cubitt of Ipswich, and one of the first was erected at the House of Correction in Brixton, England. The treadmill article that appeared in American newspapers notes that even though the treadmill had only been in operation for a short while, it had already shown great promise as a means of punishment. For one, the treadmill solved the problem of providing “regular and suitable employment for prisoners sentenced to hard labor.” And even if the supply of corn that needed grinding fell off or the water reserves were sufficient, it was not necessary to suspend the labor of the prisoners. In fact, it was not even necessary to inform the inmates of these circumstances. They could continue to fulfill their sentence of hard labor in the absence of productive need and not even know it.

Another advantage was that the operation of the device required minimal supervision. In Brixton, a series of ten treadmills radiated out like spokes on a wheel from the Governor’s house, which gave the governor a complete and continuous view of their workings. The operation of the machine was also so simple that prisoners did not need instruction in how to use it, nor did it require any tools, which might otherwise be “liable to waste on misapplication, or subject to wear and tear.” Even more, the machine automatically policed the prisoners’ productivity. If the speed with which the prisoners worked ever dropped below a certain level, the slow pace would cause a bell to ring and alert the governor or the taskmaster.

The treadmill could also save the state money. Even though an initial expense was required to build and put the machines into operation, they would have the overall effect of reducing the number of prisoners through deterrence. According to the celebratory article, “many prisoners have been known to declare that they would sooner undergo any species of fatigue, or suffer any deprivation, than return to the house of correction, when once released.” Imagine these prisoners’ reaction if they were told that one day people would actually buy or pay to use exercise machines that essentially mimics this form of punishment!

The Reality

For a short time, the use of treadmills in prisons proliferated in England. But the conditions created by their operation were brutal. The machines ran for ten hours a day at many institutions, with prisoners alternating between 20 minutes of rest and 20 minutes of work for hours on end. In a drive towards productivity, officials sometimes forced pregnant women and inmates with bad legs onto the treadmill, and fatigued prisoners were at times crushed and mangled in its gears.

The treadmills were not that productive either. The power that could be generated by the inmates fell well short of what could be produced by a water-driven wheel. And if indeed the machine did accomplish its goal of reducing the number of prisoners, what would happen if that number fell below what would be needed to operate the treadmills?

The early description of the treadmill that appeared in American newspapers was glowing. But did criminal justice officials in America buy into these arguments and race to implement this new invention in their prisons in the same way that those in England did? Stay tuned. An answer to this question will appear in another post on Early American Crime.


“Description of the Tread Mill.” Salem Gazette, October 25, 1822, vol. XXXVI, issue 83, p. 1. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.

“How to Cut Prison Costs” (Editorial). The New York Times, November 10, 2012. Website:

Ignatieff, Michael. A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850. New York: Penguin Books, 1978.

Lienhard, John H. “Prison Treadmills.” Engines of Our Ingenuity, no. 374. Website:

“Sunday Dialogue: How We Punish Crime.” The New York Times, December 1, 2012. Website:

Weekly Eastern Argus, April 8, 1823, vol. XX, issue 1048, p. 1. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers: Readex/Newsbank.

In the Media: Insights into Researching Early American Crime

Go to In the Media

When I speak at libraries, historical societies, and other groups about early American crime, I am often asked where and how I find information about these historical criminals.

The short answer is that I generally use a combination of databases that are freely available on the Web and subscription databases that I access through local libraries. I also use a handful of print resources. Regular readers of this blog probably know this information already, because I always include a list of the sources I consulted during my research at the end of each article.

But if you are interested in gaining even greater insight into how I approach my research, you can read an article I wrote that just appeared in the November 2012 edition of the Readex Report entitled, “Digging Up Crime Stories from America’s Past: Tips and Technique from a Librarian-Scholar.”

The Readex Report is the official newsletter of Readex/Newsbank, the company that publishes two important subscription databases for my research, America’s Historical Imprints and America’s Historical Newspapers. History buffs might also enjoy the other articles in the newsletter, which include a story about a late nineteenth-century African-American cycling champion and another one about the first Egyptian mummy to be commercially displayed in America.