William Staub: Patron Saint of Gym Rats

“Millions are living longer, healthier lives because he looked out the window … one morning in the sleet and rain, and thought to himself, ‘ There’s got to be a better way.’”

By Dave Riley

When William Staub died two years ago in Clifton, New Jersey, where he had lived for more than seventy years, it was only a certain eclectic class of people across the country that mourned his passing. So if you never heard of William Staub, don’t feel that something is lacking in your education. In spite of the revolution he helped to create in the world of physical fitness, Mr. Staub never became a household name.

He was born in Philadelphia in 1915. He became a mechanical engineer and in the early 1940’s moved to nearby New Jersey where he worked in the propeller division of the aircraft manufacturer Curtiss-Wright. He reportedly was a terrific engineer but he also had the DNA of an entrepreneur. So eventually he abandoned the role of employee and founded the aerospace company Besco Corporation. (Besco is an acronym for the Bill Edward Staub Corporation.)

Fast forward a couple of decades. Halfway across the country Dr. Kenneth Cooper, a medical doctor and former Air Force colonel, had been for years PandaTreadmillRev1promoting a then revolutionary idea that today is taken as objective fact: the key to overall physical fitness is having a healthy heart. Over the years Dr. Cooper
published nearly two dozen books on the subject, popularized the term aerobics, and founded a number of companies in Texas dedicated to helping people get fit and stay that way.

In the late 1960’s, when Mr. Staub was in his early 50’s, Besco was thriving. Mr. Staub, although a disciplined person in his own habits, nevertheless wasn’t much of a fitness buff. That all changed when he picked up a book by Dr. Cooper entitled Aerobics.

“Dr. Cooper said if you ran a mile in eight minutes and did it four to five times a week, you would always be in a good fitness category,” Mr. Staub’s son Gerald said in the New York Times obituary about his father. “[Dad] said even I — no excuses — I can afford eight minutes. That’s what excited him about it.”

So Mr. Staub took up running, and pretty soon he could do his eight-minute miles. But at some times of the year the weather in Clifton, New Jersey, can be downright inhospitable. The average low temperature between November and March ranges from 19 degrees to 34 degrees, and most months of the year the average rainfall is over four inches. Summer with its high temps and sweltering humidity is no bargain. So Mr. Staub set his mind to creating a device, the treadmill, that would allow people to exercise without ever stepping foot outside their homes.

Treadmills were nothing new. In fact they go back 4,000 years, but not as a piece of exercise equipment. Originally they were used to carry water and later to create rotary grain mills, powered sometimes by humans and sometimes by animals. In the 1800’s the British penal system used treadmills to punish prisoners. “Several prisoners stood side-by-side on a wheel, and had to work six or more hours a day, effectively climbing 5,000 to 14,000 vertical feet,” according to Wikipedia. “While the purpose was mainly punitive, the mill could grind grain, pump water, or ventilate.”

By the 1960’s exercise treadmills were common in doctor’s offices, but they were very costly. With much encouragement from Dr. Cooper, Mr. Staub set about making one that would be commercially viable, i.e., inexpensive enough for the average person to purchase. He founded a company called Aerobics, and while his employees at Besco were making their company’s products, William Staub was in the other half of the facility trying to turn a collection of pulleys and belts and whatnot into a treadmill. His prototype consisted of 40 steel rollers covered by an orange belt, a gray cover over the motor, and orange dials to determine time and speed. He called it the Pacemaster.

Mr. Staub and his son began marketing the device at trade shows and elsewhere, and eventually it caught on. In the interval between then and now, one internet source estimates that 83 million of a number of different brands have been sold. “I don’t think he thought it was going to be quite as big as it was,” Gerald Staub said. Today’s treadmills are glitzier with a lot of bells and whistles that Mr. Staub’s plane Jane original didn’t have. I was on one on a cruise ship a month or so ago that had a heart rate monitor, a gear for creating hills, a flat panel TV, a plug in for a bunch of channels of music, and much more.

Barbara Bushman, a professor of kinesiology at Missouri State University, said William Staub changed the way people exercise. “From a public health standpoint, it’s so encouraging,” Bushman said. “He really took away the excuse of the weather’s not conducive to exercise today, or the neighborhood conditions are not safe or optimal, it’s early morning. All those excuses are really taken away with one piece of equipment.”

Mr. Staub’s passing was noted in daily papers large and small across the country, but it was also reported, with noticeable affection, in specialized publications that cater to the nation’s running and aerobics enthusiasts.

“The gym rats in Phoenix were talking today,” Christine Colburn wrote in the Phoenix Mental Health Examiner on the occasion of Mr. Staub’s death. “Who could believe the man, William Staub who invented the treadmill we all love so much in the gym was really gone. William Staub took the treadmill — that ubiquitous piece of exercise equipment that is loved and loathed by millions — into homes and gyms. He was 96 and had been spied on a treadmill as recently as two months ago.”

Treadmill Review wrote that day, “Treadmill users everywhere take a moment to pay tribute to the life of William Staub for without him, you would still be pounding the pavement, missing your favorite TV shows, and dying without your air conditioners.”

It is impossible to calculate the enormous benefits that people worldwide have received from Mr. Staub’s creation. Millions are living longer, healthier lives because he looked out the window before going off to jog one morning in the sleet and rain, and thought to himself, “There’s got to be a better way.”

Dave Riley

About Dave Riley

Growing Old Isn’t For Sissies is about aging. It’s stories of how some older people achieve remarkable successes, how some people make the lives of others better, and how all seniors have hurdles to face — maladies, loss of loved ones and more.