It’s by no means unusual for words to change their meaning, often quite dramatically, as they’re passed down from decade and decade, and from century to century, through the language. Sometimes however, those changes can be quite surprising—which is the point of the new HH book, The Accidental Dictionary, and the focus of this week’s YouTube video.
One more etymological story that could have made the final cut here is that of the treadmill.
Depending on what your opinions are of exercise, the fact that there is any kind of connection between gym equipment and hard labor in a Victorian prison might come as little surprise. But oddly, that’s precisely where the word treadmill fits into the language—and to understand why, we have to go back to eighteenth-century England.
The engineer William Cubitt was born in Norfolk in 1785. The son of a local miller, he grew up in an agricultural community and dedicated much of his early life—and his unending enthusiasm for design and invention—to producing machinery aimed at easing the tough manual labor he had grown up around. Indeed Cubitt’s long list of inventions included everything from a new design for an agricultural thresher, to a set of self-regulating windmill sails.
In later life, he moved to London and applied his knowledge to much larger engineering projects including canals, bridges, railways and docks; the Oxford canal, the old coal-loading docks at the mouth of the River Tees and part of the London to Brighton railway line are all examples of his work. In 1830, he was made a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1850 was elected president of the Institute of Civil Engineers, a position that eventually led to his involvement in the construction of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park for the famed Great Exhibition the following year; for his contribution to the project, Cubitt was knighted by Queen Victoria in December 1851.
But out of this lifetime of innovation and accomplishment, one of Cubitt’s inventions stands out above all others: in 1818, he invented the treadmill.
According to legend, Cubitt happened one day to notice the prisoners in one of London’s gaols merely idling their time away in the prison yard. Sensing a wasted opportunity, he conceived of a device that would not only stir them from their lassitude and allow them to pass their time in prison more actively, but could harness this activity to provide a useful service—albeit an arduous and unpleasant one.
The design he came up with involved an enormous cylinder, surrounded by a series of loops or belts, each fitted at regular intervals with steps or rungs. Pushing down on the first step with your foot would move the belt around the cylinder, and bring another step around to take its place, essentially forming a never-ending staircase; in a gruelling eight-hour shift, a prisoner stepping in this manner would climb the equivalent of more than 7,000ft. This huge man-powered mill could then be adapted or connected up to some other piece of machinery, harnessing the men’s labor to do anything from grinding grain to crushing rocks to produce grit for the construction industry.
Cubitt initially referred to his invention as the “tread-wheel”, but in a description published in 1822 it is referred to as “the tread mill invented by Mr. William Cubitt ... for the employment of prisoners”. And this—a hard-labor punishment in Victorian gaols—was the first recorded treadmill in the English language.
Cubitt’s treadmills remained in use in English prisons right through to the turn of the century, when prison reform and the increasing industrialization of society made the work the prisoners were performing a thing of the past. As they disappeared, so too did the word treadmill itself, until it was rescued from obscurity in the 1950s—during the post-war vogue for fitness and exercise—and applied to a piece of gym equipment that used a similarly unending, foot-powered rotating belt. Although which of the two provides the least pleasant experience is up to you to decide...