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    Auction Finds

    Animal treadmill that powered a washing machine

    The first photo at the top of the series on the auction website showed a contraption with a single wooden wheel like a WWI military tank but with an upward slant. The next featured a big wooden box on legs.

    I couldn’t tell from the two photos what the heck these items were, so I continued browsing the rest of the photos. Then the boxy piece showed up with a wringer attached to it, and I knew that this was some kind of washing machine. Included among the photos was the cover from a book featuring a woolly sheep walking a treadmill with some type of machine in back of it.

    Finally, the auction house revealed what they were: an antique sheep-powered washing machine and animal-powered treadmill. And they were being sold separately. I couldn’t figure out why since one seemed to power the other. But I later learned the answer.

    animal-powered treadmill

    Animal-powered treadmill at auction.

    This type of treadmill was used during the late 19th century and up to World War I to power farm and household equipment before gas-powered motors and electricity became the norm. By the 1920s, they were no longer practical. It was likely powered by a dog, sheep or goat, while treadmills powered by horses were used around the same time and met their demise for much the same reasons.

    The treadmills were referred to as “horse power” or “dog or goat or sheep power.” Usually, the animal was spurred to walk it by putting feed in front of it, and the power could be used for a washing machine, butter churn, cream separator and other equipment.

    Here’s how it worked, according the the Stuhr Museum in Wisconsin:

    “The farmer or his wife would attach a belt to the belt wheel on the side of the treadmill and to the belt wheel on the side of another machine, for example, a washing machine. … The dog would walk to keep its position on the treadmill, causing a series of gears inside and the wheel on the outside of the treadmill to spin. The spinning wheel moved the belt which, in turn, spun a wheel on the outside of the washing machine. The wheel on the washing machine moved gears inside the machine which then turned other parts, agitating or stirring the clothes around in the water inside the machine’s tub. By using a dog treadmill to power a washing machine, butter churn, cream separator, or other machine, the farmer and his wife had more time to do other things. For larger chores such as running a threshing machine, companies built treadmills for two, three, or even four horses.”

    prison treadmill

    The prison treadmill invented by William Cubbit. From Cornell University Library.

    Animal power was no new phenomena by the late 19th century. Horses had been employed to power farm equipment since at least the 16th century, and by the early 19th century in this country, they were walking the treadmills. The smaller dog treadmills came later in the century. Here are some examples of them.

    The treadmill itself was invented by an Englishman engineer named William Cubbit, not to be used on farms but as punishment for prisoners. Apparently, he got tired of seeing prisoners lolling around, and wanted to put them to work. Around 1822, the British Surrey house of correction in the village of Brixton erected his treadmill model – a type of waterwheel with boards that was used to discipline prisoners and power mills.

    Its 10 wheels could hold up to 100 people at one time. It would be almost a century later before the mechanism was banned.

    antique washing machine

    The washing machine and wringer.

    A restored 19th-century treadmill turned up on Antiques Roadshow in 2009, made by the Vermont Farm Machine Company, similar to the one on the book cover. The appraiser noted that it would appeal only to a small number of antique farm-equipment collectors. He valued it at $300 to $500, noting that the original graphics gave it extra cache.

    I wasn’t around when the one at auction was sold.

    While the treadmill was animal-controlled, the washing machine at auction was not. It was electrical. It still had its original graphic on the side, and was identified as a Kiel Oscillator Vacuum Washer made by the American Gas Machine Company of Minnesota. The machine has foot and hand controls to operate the wringer, and an oscillator inside. This one was missing the steel case underneath that held the gears. It was being advertised for sale around 1918-1920.

    dog treadmill

    At left, an ad for a sheep-powered cream separator with treadmill; the inside of the washing machine at auction, and the name of the washing machine.


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