Going Nowhere for Fun and Torture

In 1818, civil engineer William Cubitt, well-respected for his work on windmill sails and for a fastidiousness that carried him quickly up the ranks of the engineering firms for which he worked, proposed a new approach to convict rehabilitation.

Sir William Cubitt, who also had a somewhat complicated relationship with the treadmill. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He suggested that in order to counteract the tendency of prisoners toward idleness, they ought to be put to good use on treadmills, producing the rotary power needed to grind corn or pump water or provide entertainment for the prison guards. Cubitt designed the contraption himself, drawing on his experience as the son of a miller. It consisted of a paddle wheel with twenty-four spokes that required a prisoner to step up continually for as many as six hours at a time.

I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of exhausted just reading that. Like probably most people who have ever used one, I have a complicated relationship with the treadmill. I have one. I keep it tucked into a cool, dark corner of my basement, which is where I reluctantly, but also kind of gratefully, use it.

If you’ve followed along with this blog for long, you may recall that I think running is stupid. I stand by that. But I also occasionally (actually lately even frequently) run. I blame Covid for this latest burst of insanity, because for a while it led to a more sedentary lifestyle and fewer available opportunities to curb that. So, I dusted off my running shoes and hit the treadmill, which is a lot less punishing on my creaky joints than pavement is.

I suspect that the unlucky English prisoners of the 19th century who were subjected to this particular form of work didn’t care for it much. I know I still hate every single second I spend running to nowhere, though later I always appreciate having spent some quality treadmill time and tend to feel better afterwards, so I guess maybe you could say I enjoy the destination. I’m getting better at it, too.

Cubitt’s treadmill wasn’t completely monstrous. It included a handrail. British Library, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

That’s one thing that I can say that this year plus of our little global pandemic has conditioned us all for. Many of us have gotten much better at accomplishing things while going nowhere at all. And this week, in between torture sessions on the treadmill, I have been able to do just that, because I have been “attending” the Historical Novel Society’s annual conference from the comfort of my at-home office while wearing a series of professional-ish looking blouses and comfy running shorts.

The conference was originally supposed to be held in San Antonio, but was moved to an entirely virtual format in the midst of pandemic concerns. It would have been fun to spend a little time away in a really interesting city that I’ve not yet managed to explore. I could have taken lots of sock monkey pictures, traded business cards with my fellow writers, and purchased more books than I had room for in my luggage.

I did take one picture of my travel buddy Steve. Sadly, it’s not in front of the Alamo, but he’s still smiling.

But this virtual thing has actually been working really well. The organizers have done a brilliant job, providing topical Zoom room mingling opportunities that have probably led to more engagement in meaningful conversations than I would have been able to accomplish in a physical room full of people. The presentation lineup is outstanding, and more complete than it could have been at a live conference. There’s been more participation from writers around the world than would likely have traveled to San Antonio.

I have learned and am continuing to learn a ton. I have also kept up with the laundry, spent some time with my family, and enjoyed having my dog lay at my feet as I sit at my computer chatting with new friends. I’ve done a lot, and I’m tired, but I haven’t gone anywhere at all. And while I probably would prefer to be at a live conference, I haven’t hated every single second of it. In fact, this particular treadmill hasn’t felt the least bit torturous.

I’m not sure I could say the same for the literal treadmill in my basement. Fortunately for England’s inmates, however, William Cubitt’s brand of prison torture was outlawed in 1889. To the best of my knowledge, my treadmill is still legal. But if I’m misinformed, please don’t hesitate to tell me because as much as I like the feeling of having finished a run, I am a hopelessly law-abiding citizen.   

10 thoughts on “Going Nowhere for Fun and Torture

  1. Sounds like the zoom conference was a real winner. In the future, I wonder if groups might open up both a physical meeting and a virtual meeting?

  2. The treadmill is a great idea for creating electricity. Perhaps one of your sons could rig it up to the oven?? I was part of several Zoom international poetry reading events and was very surprised how easy and convivial it was.

  3. I’ve often thought of attending that conference! One of these years I’m going to, dang it! Glad you are enjoying it – I’ve definitely learned a lot at writers conferences in the past!

  4. Based on previous comments, maybe hooking up the treadmill to power your computer as you’re attending the conference is the next logical step. And yes, treadmills should be illegal (unless used for power generation). I used to have one but felt the creeping invasion of insanity every time I was on it. Now, I just run outside…and likely provide entertainment for prison guards and other people alike : )

    1. I did listen in on a couple of the sessions while running. Not a terrible way to pass the time. Just have to be careful that it isn’t one that’s going to require note-taking. I assume running with a pencil would be dangerous.

  5. Added bonus? You missed partaking in the rubber chicken, copious amounts of alcohol and possibly sinfully rich breads (my fave) and desserts that probably would have been available to you throughout the conference.

    And both of the elderly adult ed programs I participate in are going to hybrid online/in-person classes for most if not all their offerings. That means I can still join the book clubs and some of the classes I would be in if I was still in TN, with the added bonus of actually getting to see and hear some of he friends there I had to leave behind. On the other hand, I can now go in person to classes here in CA and get back on the journey of establishing similar friendships here. That was the main reason I’d joined this program a year and a half ago. Win win!

    1. It looks like this conference is also going to do some sort of hybrid in the future as well. I can’t really picture how that might work, but I have a lot of confidence in the leadership after seeing how well this all went. I know it had to have been a ton of work.

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