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The Nautilus Machine (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

I occasionally go the gym and use the exercise machines. I regard these machines as torture devices. So, I'm not surprised that their inventor has been described as "among the darkest and crankiest people you're every likely to met."

His name is Arthur Jones and he invented, over a period of twenty years, the Nautilus machine. It started in 1948 when he was working out at the YMCA in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While exercising with barbells he noticed how awkward his movements were, and how slowly he built muscle.

He noted that with barbells the force is always directed downward by gravity. So that in a curl for example, the weight became harder to lift as his arm reached the horizontal, then easier as he curled his arm until it was vertical. He concluded that there must be a way to keep the force constant and thus excerise his muscles completely. So, he set out to design an exercise machine, which he called "an attempt to create a thinking person's barbell." His goal was to exercise all of the muscles in his body. As he said of himself after years of working with barbells: "I had the arms and legs of a gorilla and the body of a spider monkey." Gorillas and monkeys were something he knew well. Over the twenty years he took to invent his exercise machine, he operated an airline that captured wild animals from South American and African and sold them to zoos and circuses. His machine came to fruition, when, in 1968, political turmoil in Africa prevented any further flights by him.

Now with free time on his hands, he built what he called "the blue monster", the first Nautilus machine. It applied his ideas of variable resistance to muscles by carefully designed spiral pulleys. They resembled a section of the chambered nautilus shell, and so Jones named his machine Nautilus.

The machine wasn't well received at first. He appeared to most as a crackpot: A middle-aged man from Oklahoma who said he'd built a machine that would revolutionize the exercise industry. As the experts scoffed, Jones took his machine to local high school weight lifting teams. They won state championships. Then he trained a bodybuilder who won the Nation's top titles. Then in 1970 the Kansas City Chiefs ordered several, and the Nautilus took off: By the 1980s, annual sales were about $400 million.

He's now sold off his company, and lives on a 500 acre farm in Florida with some 2000 crocodiles, a few hundred snakes, and a gorilla. And he likes to joke that now that he's rich, he's no longer called a crackpot, just eccentric. Indeed.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises