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Muscle matters

Authors: Christopher Viney and Lydia Smith

Before wind and water were harnessed, the strength of people and animals was used to power mills.

Animal power

Rotary Querns were crucial to the development of animal mills. From there it was possible to make the first step from replacing human power with other sources.

Animal-powered mills could be much larger as well as having a greater efficiency and output. The earliest and best-known example is the hourglass or Pompeiian mill. So-called as they were large hourglass shaped and the best-preserved examples were found in the ruins of Pompeii. They originated around the 6th-4th Century BC, and it is suggested that they were first used in mining operations. The operated like a large scale Rotary Quern in that the animal would be attached and driven in a circle, thus turning the millstone.

The earliest documentary reference in England for a Horse mill dates to 1183. Animal-powered mills have been in constant use since their development, and are still used today. All sorts of animals have been used to power a variety of operations including horse mills, donkeys, oxen and even camels.

Prison treadmill

Imagine being forced to climb the equivalent of half of Mount Everest in 8 hours every day; malnourished, exhausted physically and mentally. You cannot slow down or have a satisfactory break, you can sit for five minutes every now and then, but all too soon you have to continue your steep uphill climb. Guards stand behind you armed with whips to make sure you stay quiet and keep pace, and menacing gears grind underneath your feet, reminding you of their deadly potential if you slipped. This would be an average day in the life of a Victorian prisoner who had been assigned to the treadmill.

The treadmill, or treadwheel as it was more accurately known, was a large wheel upon which prisoners would have to climb as it rotated under their weight.

Sometimes the treadmill would be used to grind grain or to pump water, often for the prisons own use. However, the output of this was so meagre that the prisoner’s hard work contributed little in comparison to a wind or water powered mill. Because of this small output, the exercise was used to give inmates something to do and teach them the value of hard work, rather than substantial production. With no sense of purpose, many prisoners suffered mentally with boredom and frustration, occasionally leading to anger-fuelled riots within the prison. As expected, the punishment was widely despised by inmates, who would go to great lengths to avoid the work. Some would make excuses as to why they were unfit for the exercise by scratching at themselves and feigning injuries. There are even instances of all the prisoners refusing to go on the treadwheel unless they had more food and better shoes.

The use of the treadwheel in prisons was condemned by critics in both England and America, before being abolished in the early 20th century.

Further reading