The History of Indoor Rowing Machines

Since man has had the ability to use tools, man has made boats to go on the water. We as a species have always been fascinated with water travel. Using boats and ships for trade and travel is its own lengthy history for another time. However, using boats for leisure and sport is where our story of indoor rowing machines begins.


Looking Back Across the Centuries

Boat racing in general goes back in recorded history as early as the 13th century. Eventually, rowing found its way into the professional circuit, and so began a long history with friendly (and not-so friendly) rivalries across this pond or the other. Today, rowing is a well-respected sport practiced by professional and amateur teams alike. So while the sport of rowing had existed for more than five hundred years, one man had the idea to take the concept and bring it on land.

W.B. Curtis held the first patent for an indoor rowing machine. It was patented in 1872 in the interest of keeping athletes in shape off the water. It had a flywheel and ratchet system, which was a revolutionary design during the time. The flywheel is a design piece that is common in today’s rowing machines. Its purpose is to store rotational energy, which is ideal for a rowing machine, where consistent speed is needed to achieve an ideal motion. However, the Curtis design was lacking in accurately mimicking outdoor rowing motion. And unlike today’s designs, the user had no way of knowing the power or energy output produced by their movements. The Curtis design had many admirers, imitators, and improvers in the years that came after his patent.

New Innovations

The next wave of indoor rowing machines had a linear pneumatic resistance. This system used gas to create motion. These machines appeared around 1900, and were mass produced and sold to universities, gyms, and very rarely to home users. The most popular brand was the Narragansett Machine Company. They were produced in Providence, Rhode Island. They were also dissimilar to the actual motion of real rowing on the water, although the pressurized gas system was slightly more fluid than the original invention. These machines were popular until the 1960s, when the design fell out of favor.

Rowers were Not Always Popular

The next step in the evolution of indoor rowing machines was the vastly unpopular mechanical brake design. These machines appeared in the 1950s and did not last long at all due to user discomfort. In addition to the mechanical brake, the design included an iron wheel. For thirty years, this type of design was widely hated and rarely used because it was simply too difficult to handle. Once the concept of air resistance was introduced in the 1980s, the machines of the day rapidly began gaining their popularity back. It was the combination of air resistance and flywheel designs that made for a smooth design that is still used in many modern machines. The most popular and inexpensive design was the Concept2 Indoor Rower (a model that is still on the market today). Invented by Dick and Peter Dreissigacker in 1981, today’s design has hardly been altered from the original Concept2. It was the first rower that was successful in mimicking the motion of rowing on the water. This model was used especially by university teams for training in the winter. The Concept2 is still used today all over the world in colleges, health clubs, and home gyms.

Modern Machines

Today’s selection for indoor rowing machines varies widely. In the last thirty years, we have retained the air resistance design, and added three more designs: the hydraulic resistance, magnetic resistance, and water resistance are all common types of rowers and each has its own advantages. Hydraulic resistance uses metal cylinders that pump up and down. These are most commonly found in home gyms, as they are lightweight and easily moved and folded. Magnetic resistance machines utilize, not surprisingly, magnets to create resistance for the user. These are often touted as being the highest quality, quietest, and best for managing the user’s own resistance level. Water resistance machines use a tank filled with water as its form of resistance. These are thought to be the most associative to a real rowing experience. Many professional athletes prefer to use water resistance in off-season training for this reason. They are also the most stationary due to the weight of the water in the tank. Many modern conveniences have been added to today’s machines.

Since indoor rowing machines were introduced into the world in the 19th century, we have seen many changes and advances in its technology. Luckily for today’s athletes and amateur users, the mistakes of the past have provided the foundation for the nearly flawless designs of modern machines. There are many options to choose from, and each user can pick the design based on the specific needs of the user. Decide for yourself which one you like best!

Check out today’s version of the Concept2 Indoor Rowing Machine at work: