Betsy Lewis-Holmes

History of Design

Gustaf Zander's Passive Abdominal Exerciser, c. 1892


Title of Dissertation: Energy Transfers Exercising minds and bodies with machines in late Victorian London

Why do we use machines for exercise? This project explores the historical beginnings of todays gym culture.

Focusing on the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the paper draws on ideas from evolutionary theory, medicine, technology and science to frame health machines within Victorian notions of scientific and social progress. These ideas are investigated through three case studies. Firstly, exercise machines that moved joints and strengthened muscles through weight training; secondly 'passive' machines that created involuntary motion; and finally electric belts, which claimed to charge the body with 'vital force'.

By contextualising exercise machines within scientific ideas around energy loss and conservation, the thesis argues that machines were perceived as agents that could directly impart energy to the human body. Being able to charge your body with mechanical or electrical energy was a way, for Victorians, to overcome physical and national fatigue.

The contemplation of machines was considered an important educational process for Victorians, and this thesis argues that engaging with machines for health provided both psychological and physical therapy. The aesthetic of the machine was crucial organic and ornamental wrought iron and moving steel provided a spectacle of machine wonder. Engaging with health machines in ritual movements, or strapping on an electric belt, users bodies and minds could be enhanced through a coupling of body/mind/machine.

+44 (0)7540 655 126

Courtesy of the Tekniska Museet, National Museum of Science and Technology, Stockholm



BA (Hons), History of Art, University College London, 2007; Foundation Art and Design, Kingston University, 2008


Senior gallery assistant, Orleans House Gallery, Twickenham, 2007–12; Exhibition assistant, Royal Society/Oxford University Neuroscience Department, London, 2011; Research assistant, National Trust, Polesden Lacey, 2011; Psychology research assistant, Institute of Psychiatry, London, 2009


Echoes of Other Worlds, Stables Gallery, Twickenham, 2010; By Design, Orleans House Gallery, Twickenham, 2009


'Health and Fitness Machines in America 1870–1900', Sick of Being Sick: Third Postgraduate Workshop for Medical Historians, Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine, Oxford University, 2011