Going to the Gym Today? Thank This 19th-Century Orthopedist

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Dr. Zander started a movement for movement itself. 

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A patient at the Zander Institute in Stockholm, 1890s. (Tekniska Museet/National Museum of Science and Technology, Stockholm, via Cabinet Magazine)

"Exercise machines" are oxymorons. The devices we've come to depend on for so many of our physical exertions -- the bikes, the climbers, the treadmills -- aren't just stationary tools intended to encourage movement; they are also the functional opposites of their industrial counterparts. Rather than save us from physical labor, they demand it of us. This week, as gyms around the world see themselves packed with a temporary flush of temporarily flushed people -- hordes whose numbers will inevitably dwindle come January 9, and January 16, and February 1 -- exercise institutions will play host to a time-honored but relatively young tradition: humans planning and paying for the privilege of moving their bodies.

For the popularity of that pastime, we can thank and/or blame this guy: Dr. Jonas Gustav Wilhelm Zander, the Swedish physician and orthopedist and all-around genius who invented the exercise machine in its familiar form. Though Dr. Zander wasn't alone in realizing the market for machines that would aid in exercise -- and though exercise equipment as a more general thing has been around since long before the Greeks and their gymnasia -- it was Dr. Zander who popularized the connections between physical exertions and overall well-being. He was the one who looked at a horse and realized it could be replicated for purposes of recreation. He was the one who looked at a bicycle and realized it could be used for more than transportation. Much of the strategic skeuomorphism at play in gyms today -- the mechanized bikes, the mechanized stairs, the mechanized skis, the mechanized roads, the mechanized boats -- can be traced back to Dr. Zander. He scanned the physical world and saw within it hundreds of outlets for exertion.

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Replicating hard labor at the Zander Institute in Stockholm, 1890s. (Tekniska Museet/National Museum of Science and Technology, Stockholm, via Cabinet Magazine)

Zander was born in Stockholm in 1835. He was, as you might suspect from his later inventions, weak as a child, slight in build and sickly -- and eager to find ways to improve on the raw material nature had given him. In the 1850s, the amateur gymnast -- inspired by Pehr Henrik Ling, who pioneered medical gymnastics and Swedish massage -- began experimenting with machine-aided exercise, devising springs and weights that he attached via pulley systems. While attending medical school in the early 1860s, though, Zander learned more about the mechanics of muscles and joints, and realized the power of resistance to build muscles. He came to believe something fairly revolutionary at the time: that the key to health was not blood-letting, or purging, or strenuous acrobatics, or any of the 19th century's other extreme answers to ailments. Instead, he thought, health relied on "progressive exertion": the controlled, systematic engagement of the body's muscles in a way that would build those muscles over time. To achieve that exertion, Zander realized, you didn't need, necessarily, a complicated system; all a device had to do to be effective was to mimic, mechanically, the systems that humans had been using for centuries.

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Two views of the Gymansticon: On the left, the mechanism of the machine, per inventor Francis Lowndes's patent application; On the right, an engraving of the device in action, circa 1798 (Wikimedia Commons)

Zander took the Gymnasticon -- the 18th century's bike-like contraption that was both gloriously named and centuries ahead of its time -- and doubled down on its logic, making machines out of everyday tools of work. His devices allowed users to be either active or passive participants in their own recreation: You could "ride" a "horse," but you could also sit as the horse did the riding for you. As an 1895 New York Times review of the city's Zander Institute put it, describing the 100 or so pieces of apparatus at the new 59th Street outpost,

Each of these occupies a large and handsomely fitted room, and each, lined with machines, gives the uninitiated observer an impression of a carefully devised torture chamber more than of a doctor's office or a gymnasium, both of which functions the institute, to a certain degree, fills ....

Every part of the body has its own particular device, even the fingers, one machine being especially arranged for the counteraction of writers' cramps by exercising the stiffened joints. By a careful hanging of the weight revolving in a circle these exercising machines produce an effect which exactly follows that of the muscular contraction, the muscle exerting its greatest power in the middle of the contraction. In a common chest weight the resistance does not follow this scientific principle.

The article's headline is "WONDERS IN AIDS TO HEALTH." And the breathlessness of its narration is telling. Zander did his inventing during a time that merged medical discovery with an emphasis on the glories of mechanization. The age of the Zander Institute was also the age of the electric corset, not to mention the Kodak camera and the car: Machines had cultural, as well as technological, currency. The social context was right for exercise, too: In the mid-19th century, gymnasiums took hold as a social movement in Europe and eventually in the United States, giving people renewed awareness of the medical and health benefits of exercise. The Zander machines coincided, as well, with the rise of the white-collar worker -- and of the kind of sedentary professional lifestyle that is likely allowing you to read this article right now.

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A gentleman sacrifices comfort for health at the Zander Institute in Stockholm, 1890s. (Tekniska Museet/National Museum of Science and Technology, Stockholm, via Cabinet Magazine)

Zander pitched his machines, the writer Carolyn de la Pena notes, as "a preventative against the evils engendered by a sedentary life and the seclusion of the office." And he pitched them as well, implicitly and explicitly, as luxury experiences -- experiences that were expensive, and rarified, and therefore available only to society's elites. Mechanized workouts enforced, for the first time, a separation between exercise and labor: They posited physical activity as something to be engaged in not by economic necessity, but by personal choice. "By declaring that 'fitness' equaled a perfectly balanced physique, rather than the ability to perform actual physical tasks," de la Pena puts it, "body power was shifted from laborers to loungers."

That was a big shift -- a revolution whose effects we are still feeling today, at the gym and in the culture at large. Machines have always allowed humans to exert control over their environment; with the advent of exercise machines, humans extended that environment to their own bodies.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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