Today, America shies away from a strange prison
reform. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Prisons are strange places.
Are they meant to punish? Are they meant to reform?
Or are they merely meant to keep criminals out of
our hair for a season? That question rides upon a
curious 19th-century machine, the prison treadmill.
Treadmills have been around since antiquity. They
let us use our lower body muscles to power pumps
and mills. Treadmills came into English jails
following a 1779 prison reform act. That act said
that prisoners should be given
... labor of the hardest and most servile kind
in which drudgery is chiefly required and where the
work is little liable to be spoiled by ignorance,
neglect, or obstinacy ...
That worked well enough in the boom
economy of the early Industrial Revolution. But
England had out-of-work laborers on her hands after
the Napoleonic Wars. She could hardly let convicts
take jobs, no matter how menial, away from citizens.
Then Sir William Cubitt, a noted 19th-century civil
engineer, offered a solution. He designed a
treadmill for English prisons. It's aim was to
generate power for mills. It looked like a very
wide paddle wheel. Workers held on to a bar and
climbed the paddle blades. It was like walking
upstairs for hours on end. They had to keep lifting
their legs. Gravity gave them no choice.
A typical treadmill shift lasted eight hours.
Workers spent 40 percent of that time resting.
That's a lot worse than it sounds. It meant raising
the lower half of their bodies 11,000 feet per day.
And yet, hard as it was, 200 men and women could
hardly match the output of one water wheel.
The English put vertical separators between
prisoners in 1838. Each was to labor in isolation,
repenting his crimes and purifying himself through
toil. Those treadmills were still operating in this
century. Oscar Wilde,
sent to prison for gross indecency in 1895, worked
on one. When he came out, he wrote about it in the
Ballad of Reading Gaol.
We banged the tins, and bawled the hymns19th-century America tried treadmills,
but they didn't catch on. For a while Charleston
slave-owners could rent one to punish runaway slaves.
But labor was too precious to waste that way in an
expanding land. We preferred to let prisoners do ugly
jobs that had some purpose -- picking cotton, or
And sweated on the mill,
But in the heart of every man
Terror was lying still.
Cubitt's treadmill may have originally had a
productive purpose. But a pound of coal could soon
do the work of five men working all day on a
treadmill. And labor-wasting was a serious crime in
its own right, in the mind of 19th-century America.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds