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.