Monday, September 30, 2013

Never-ending Toil: A Short History of Animal and Human-powered Treadmills

Blog entry by Shayla Carey

Image taken from the article, "History of the Horse in Britain," by Wikipedia.  Image from the book, 1881 Dictionnaire d'arts Industriels
Before they became exercise equipment, treadmills were used to harness the energy of living things to power simple and complex machines.  Egyptians used animals to power saqiyas that pulled water from the Nile and sent it to irrigation channels, according to J. Kenneth Major, author of the HistoryToday article, “The Pre-Industrial Sources of Power: Muscle Power.”  Romans attached oxen, donkeys, and humans to hourglass-shaped flour mills (examples of which were preserved at Pompeii).  In the fifth century A.D., Chinese engineers built ships propelled by man-powered treadmill-paddle-wheels, as described in the book, Cathedral, Forge, and Waterwheel, by Frances and Joseph Gies.  Major mentions that horse power pulled ore out of medieval mines and powered mills located in areas without ample supplies of other renewable energy sources (sheltered valleys without sufficient wind, areas without swiftly flowing water, etc).  Landis Valley has one example of a horse-powered treadmill in the Bitzer Barn.

Turnspit dog at work.
Taken from the Wikipedia article, "Turnspit Dog."
Fast forward centuries and you find that dogs were pressed into service as well, and not just for the herding, hunting, and companion jobs dogs in the American Kennel Club were specifically bred for.  Some, mainly in the lowlands of northern Europe, pulled small carts filled with canisters of milk and other supplies, as well as people, according to the book, Colonel Richardson’s Airedales:  The Making of the British War Dog School1900-1918, by Bryan D. Cummins, PhD.  There were also terriers that flushed out and killed rats, weasels and mink, as well as an extinct variety that turned a roasting spit.  These tiny, bow-legged “turnspit dogs” took turns in shifts running like hamsters inside a wheel that rotated a roast haunch over the hearth.  Dave DeWitt’s book, The Founding Foodies:  How Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin Revolutionized American Cuisine, mentions another interesting little fact:  the City Tavern, a Philadelphia establishment frequented by Thomas Jefferson, featured roasts that were turned by little turnspit dogs.

While horses provided power for larger machines like threshers on farms in the latter half of the 19th century, some dogs, as well as goats and sheep, ran smaller treadmills (example at right).  According to Larry Hess, a former teacher and engineer of much of the machinery in the triangle village during Harvest Days, these machines pumped water, powered washing machines, and cracked corn.  One task they could not so effectively help the busy farm family with, though, was churning butter, as these reluctant laborers would frequently stop and needed to be prodded to move again.  This left the constant motion required by butter churning to the children.

Most butter churns involved constant, tiring vertical motion, but this year’s Harvest Days will feature a churn run by a kid-powered treadmill.  The machine (at left), an 1888 Harding Manufacturing Company contraption, differs from the animal powered ones only in that it has a front handle grip for kids.   It took one hour to separate cream into butter and buttermilk and the kids would pass the time by singing songs such as “Come butter come, come butter come.  Peter stands at the gate, waiting for a buttered cake.”  They would take turns walking, too, as even boundless energy needs to recharge.

What has saved animals (and humans, too) from the drudgery of most menial labor is the inventiveness of people who were able to harness the power of fossil fuels to drive engines.  Our factories, farms and homes no longer need treadmills to transfer monotonous motion of one kind to useful motion of another.  These machines, similar in design to the one to be featured at Harvest Days, have now been relegated to the realm of exercise equipment and to hospitals for use during stress tests. Our dogs can rest easy now that they don’t have to work like dogs anymore.

Incidentally, page 150 of the book, Yesterday’s Farm Tools and Equipment, by Dr. Irwin Richman and Michael Emery, features a quote from the 1840 edition of The Cultivator:  “Churning is never done by hand except for a single cow.  In small dairies, the churn is worked by a dog or sheep, the latter being preferred; the larger dairies have water or horse power.”

If your kids want to try walking the treadmill, come down to Harvest Days, to be held October 12 & 13, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. both days.  It's a celebration of a year's worth of hard work, with demonstrations, food, exhibits, music, and wagon rides spread out over our 40+ acre village area.  It's a great time and a Lancaster County tradition.