Dog-Powered Machines Were Surprisingly Common in the 19th Century

The Cynophere, a dog-powered velocipede, was invented by the French mechanic Narcisse Huret and patented on December 14, 1875.
Illustration: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group (Getty Images)

Ever since dogs were first domesticated about 18,000 years ago, they’ve often had jobs to earn their keep. Today, some dogs are used to herd sheep while others help hunters track and flush out game. And, believe it or not, dogs were sometimes used historically to power machines in private homes and factories.

Dog-powered machines were surprisingly common in 19th-century America, with dogs often walking on treadmills to power everything from meat-roasting spits to butter churns to various forms of transportation. They were common, at least, until evolving standards about what constitutes animal cruelty put a stop to the trend in the early 20th century.

The bizarre tricycle-style invention pictured above was created by Narcisse Huret in 1875 and presented at the Universal Exhibition (otherwise known as a World’s Fair) in Philadelphia for the U.S. Centennial in 1876. The device was powered by two dogs and apparently could reach a speed of roughly 6 miles per hour.

As author Andrew A. Robichaud notes in the 2019 book Animal City: The Domestication of America, dog-powered machines were being advertised for sale in the U.S. as early as the 1820s, and really hit their peak from 1840 to 1870. These machines helped make all kinds of products and were seen by many people as perfectly normal duties for dogs.

But times change. And attitudes around what’s an acceptable occupation for a dog changed with it. Even in the 19th century, it’s not hard to see why so many people started to consider these machines cruel. The treadmill, after all, was originally invented in 1817 as a torture device.

Click through the slideshow to take a look at some of the hard-working good boys and girls in history who helped humanity get the job done. And don’t forget to remind your own pampered dog how much harder their life would’ve been 200 years ago, as the TikTok meme so often reminds us.


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