Blog post

Dost thou even hoist?

Gustaf Zander invented the gym as we know it

Black and white picture of young girl laying on massage table elevating her legs.
Aida Fadioui (opens in new window) (KU Leuven)

While browsing the Europeana collections you might have come across one of these funny looking images, showing well-dressed folk in the early 20th century posing with machines that look strikingly similar to those you may know from fitness clubs, spas or even hospital therapy.

Standing woman holding two handles above her shoulders which are attached to a steel frame in front of her, connecting weights via a pulley system.

The resemblance is no coincidence: these machines were created by Swedish physician and orthopaedist Dr. Jonas Gustaf Vilhelm Zander, often credited as one of the originators of mechanotherapy, the treatment of disease by mechanical means.

Black and white portrait of Dr Gustaf Zander wearing a dark suit sitting on a stool against a neutral background.

Born in Stockholm in 1825, Zander was inspired by Per Henrik Ling’s work in gymnastics and quickly became an expert in this discipline. Zander realised that those practising gymnastics were limited by what they could do with their own bodyweight.

Using mechanics to increase the pressure and resistance on certain muscles or parts of the body opened up a whole new world of possibilities, and he began his experiments with mechanical therapy in the 1850s with a specific goal in mind: opening up therapeutic movement to people with injuries or physical disabilities. The machinery allowed people to control resistance levels, allowing people with limited mobility to exercise nearly effortlessly. Each machine targeted a specific muscle group allowing isolation exercises. Some of them mimicked massage techniques: the machine in the following illustration was designed to massage the lower abdominal muscles.

Black and white picture of a man standing in between two machines, the front one having two small wheels massaging his lower abdomen.

The rapid industrialisation and mechanisation Europe went through from the turn of the 19th century brought an incredible array of new technologies, but it also led to over-populated cities, more sedentary lifestyles and an increase in epidemics.

The advent of hygienics and its particular focus on physical activity and well-being also explains why this was a time of incredible change in sports practices and technology, even though these changes at first mostly concerned people from the upper classes. One such example is the book Training of the body for games, athletics, gymnastics, and other forms of exercise, co-written in 1908 by British real tennis player and diet guru Eustace Hamilton Miles and German sports psychologist Ferdinand August Schmidt.

Dr Zander, after some successful experiments, managed to open his first wellness institute in Stockholm in 1865. Similar to our modern gyms, this institute was stocked with 27 of his machines and, because it was state-supported, it was accessible to those who could not afford to pay for such therapy.

Woman sitting on a high chair with her right arm raised, laying on a tube attached to a steel structure moving the arm around without any effort from the user.

In 1876, Zander’s machines won him a gold medal at the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and, at the same time, attracted a new and very wealthy clientele.

The next two decades saw his machines spreading around a number of exclusive private institutions and health spas around the United States, but also in other countries: by 1906, similar institutes were established in 146 different countries. They would also be exported to clients in Russia, Germany and Argentina, possibly thanks to a catalogue distributed by the Stockholm-based gymnastics equipment company “Göranssons mekaniska verkstad” from where this collection of images originates. The absence of athletic wear and lack of exertion on the people’s faces puts the emphasis on the passiveness of the activity: one only had to place oneself on the machine, and it would do all the work.

Woman sitting with her shoulders attached to a steel structure behind her which towers over her and her hands are on her hips while her feet are on a platform.

Zander's success led him to begin lecturing about remedial gymnastics at the University of Stockholm in 1880. In 1896, he became a member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. His death in 1920, in the aftermath of World War I and in the period leading to the Great Depression, temporarily put his machines out of everyone’s mind. That said, since the last decades of the 20th century, they have received well-deserved attention, and many of them can still be seen at the Swedish National Museum of Science and Technology in Stockholm and the Rijksmuseum Boerhaave in Leiden, the Netherlands.

Colour picture of a wooden and steel structure composed of a chair covered in green textile  with a handwheel on either side, two large pedals on which feet can be attached in front and a hand-lever.

You can also see more pictures of his machines on our website, or further explore the history of Sports across Europe.

This blog is part of the Europeana Sport project which showcases cultural treasures relating to sporting heritage in Europe.