Idea Blog

PICK OF THE WEEK: The History of the Treadmill (an explainer video)

Blake Harris 11.12.2015

With so much great work being done in the animation and explanation spaces, every week we like to shine a spotlight on an outstanding piece of work. This week’s selection is a clever and perhaps unexpectedly compelling explainer video about the history of treadmills.

This explainer video was created by Yukai Du (@YukaiDu), an animator and illustrated based in London. Du grew up in Guangzhou, China and graduated from Central Saint Martins College in 2014. Some of her past clients include Adobe, BBC, MIT Technology Review and WIRED UK.

Du’s explainer video was created to serve as a visual component to a Ted-Ed lesson about the dark and twisted history of the treadmill. In addition to this video, the Ted-Ed lesson also includes three categories of supplemental information/entertainment:

  • Think (quiz-like questions)
  • Dig Deeper (A chance to learn more)
  • Discuss (a forum for additional insight and discussion)

The pearl of these lessons is, unsurprisingly, the animated Ted-Ed Originals. Here is the explainer video that Yukai Du crafted to highlight this lesson:


  • Lesson by Conor Heffernan
  • Narration by Addison Anderson
  • Music by WORKPLAYWORK/Cem Misirlioglu
  • Animation by Yukai Du


1. In the 1800’s, a movement led by religious groups, philanthropies and celebrities (like Charles Dickens) sought to change the dire conditions at prisons and, instead, reform the prisoners.

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When their movement succeeded, prisons were remodeled and new forms of rehabilitation were introduced.

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2. The original treadmill was invented in 1818 by Sir William Cubitt.

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3. Here’s how the original treadmill worked: Prisoners stepped on 24 spokes of a large paddle wheel. As the wheel turned, prisoners were forced to keep stepping up or risk falling off.

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4. Meanwhile, the rotation made gears pump out water, crush grain or power mills, which is where the name treadmill originated.

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5. It’s estimated that, on average, prisoners spent about 6 hours per day on treadmills.

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That’s the equivalent of climbing 5,000 to 14,000 feet!

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(14,000 feet is roughly Mount Everest’s halfway point)

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6. Within a decade of its creation, over 50 English prisons boasted a treadmill (a similar number is estimated in America)

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7. In 1824, New York prison guard James Hardy credited the device with taming his more boisterous inmates. He wrote, “the monotonous steadiness and not its severity, constitutes its terror.”

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8. Treadmills lasted in England until the late 19th century when they were banned for being excessively cruel under the Prison Act of 1898.

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But shortly thereafter, it returned with a vengeance…

9. In 1911, a treadmill patent was issued in the US. And by 1952, the forerunner for today’s modern treadmill had been created.

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10. When the jogging craze hit the US in the 1970s, the treadmill was thrust back into the limelight as “an easy and convenient way to improve aerobic fitness and lose unwanted pounds.”

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To learn more about Yukai Du and see some of her other great work, please visit her website.

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