#MyrtleMondays: On Treadmills

I am swiftly approaching my deadline for Myrtle Hardcastle Mysteries Book 5, Myrtle, Means, and Opportunity-and this stage of the process always feels like I’m running in place: writing and writing and writing and getting absolutely nowhere, until suddenly I’m done! Hoping for that magical moment to arrive any day now.

This is actually quite a fitting metaphor for writing in general, and for the Myrtle books in particular. Come learn the sinister history of treadmills…

Treadmills have been used in industrial production for thousands of years, but it took the diabolical mind of Victorian prison reformers to turn them into the modern torture device we know so well.

Inmates on a penal treadmill, England circa 1825

Before the enlightened, humanitarian minds of the Victorian era got involved, English prisons were little more than dungeons. After their benevolent ideas went into practice, they became… dungeons with forced labor that caused the prisoners to go insane.  One of the brilliant reforms was the brainchild of engineer William Cubitt, who designed the first penal treadmill (really a sort of early Stairmaster) for Bury St. Edmunds Gaol in 1818.

Pentonville Penitentiary opened in 1842 as England’s first “model prison.” Inmates were isolated, forced to do hard labor, and required to remain silent at all times. These conditions led to mental illness among some inmates. The prison was considered so successful that a further 54 institutions were built on its model.

British prisons—at home and in the colonies—continued to use the treadmill as punishment, first for its own merits and later as a form of productive labor in grinding grain, until 1902.

Although they fell out of favor at prisons, it did not take long for treadmills to catch the eye of the equally torture-minded health spa industry of the early 1900s. By the 1920s and ’30s, treadmills were a common sight in gyms and spas in Europe and America.

Treadmills are not just for humans, however! We all know the miniature hamster wheels that entertain and exercise small pets. But centuries ago, we also relied on our furry friends in their treadmills to cook our food. For hundreds of years, a little dog known as the Turnspit Dog spent its working days and nights running on treadmills attached to the spits in fireplaces. The Industrial Revolution put them out of work in the 19th century, as it did for so many thousands of human laborers, and the turnspit dog breed is now extinct. Apparently Queen Victoria kept retired turnspit dogs as pets. (They would have been necessary staff members in large royal kitchens.)

Across the pond, Americans were putting their dogs to work churning butter. Our source for every conceivable innovation, the Sears, Roebuck Catalogue boasted their dog-powered treadmill—or goat-, sheep-, or presumably son- or daughter-powered—worked with “any churn sold by us.”


Today’s active pets can still enjoy the hopeless monotony of the treadmill.

California company One Fast Cat makes treadmills for cats (they call them “Cat Exercise Wheels”), but they don’t claim to power any devices or promise that your feline workforce will finish your book for you. Alas.

Design for a treadmill-powered grist mill by 16th century engineer Agostino Ramelli

Back to the, er, grindstone!


3 Responses to “#MyrtleMondays: On Treadmills”

  1. J. Hyde

    Oh my goodness! Learned something new today (had never heard of turnspit dogs!).

    • Debby Chase Putman

      At least your grindstone will turn out light flour, a perfect ingredient for a lovely cake. We’ll pour the tea and celebrate with you when it comes out of the creative oven! Go Elizabeth! Can’t wait to see what Myrtle is up to next! Debby

  2. Michelle

    wow! i didn’t know they were used in prison. I also never heard of a Turnspit dog!!!!!

    I have always called my treadmill a torture device, now I know it is true