Stepping back in time: Author shares history of pedometers at Drew University talk

Author Jacqueline Wernimont shows examples of pedometers over the centuries, at Drew University. Photo by Christina Beviano
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By Christina Beviano

Tracking health with a pedometer is a 21st-century craze. But its footsteps can be traced to Leonardo da Vinci, and to the Incas.

These were among the “Fitbit tidbits” shared by Jacqueline Wernimont, an associate professor at Dartmouth College, who discussed her new book, Numbered Lives: The Life and Death of Quantum Media, this month at Drew University in Madison.

Da Vinci envisioned today’s pedometer five centuries ago; before him, the Incas created a tracking device for mining and inventory, according to Wernimont. Historians have yet to decipher how to use the Incas’ invention.

Before modern personal pedometers, step-tracking devices were used for cartographic measurements, to survey land for maps, war and royal needs, Wernimont said.

By the late 18th century, the London watchmaker Spencer and Perkins was among the first to sell and advertise a “waywiser,” a form of pedometer with a hook to attach to a man’s clothing to track his steps.

Women started wearing step trackers around 1874. An advertisement by William Payne’s Payne & Co.  proclaimed how “women’s calves are for many and improved with exercise,” Wernimont recounted.

Women wore these devices to balls, and showed off their step-tracking number to their escorts. This happened often enough that higher step counts became a competition among the ladies.

By 1877, Tiffany & Co. entered the pedometer business, promoting its product to men, women and children. The average price ranged between $5 and $7, equivalent to about $100 today. A pedometer of such quality showed off one’s wealth and status, Wernimont said.

She shared a number of entertaining anecdotes. One pertained to a sickly daughter, who could hardly get out of bed, being sent to a ball by her father with guards to keep her safe. When she returned home that night, her father checked the pedometer he had given her and discovered she had danced miles.

The author also described a Native American woman whose step-tracking watch  “complimented” her for reaching her step target– while she was running from a police raid.

Consumers now have many options for tracking their daily steps: Fitbits, smart watches, health apps for phones, and websites that log the results. Yet these technologies are not perfect, Wernimont pointed out.

When she was researching pedometers, with a now-discontinued brand called Jawbone,  she placed step-tracking watches on both wrists. One was set up for a male wearer, the other, for a female.

As Wernimont walked, each tracker reported different data. The tracker set for males gave more encouraging feedback, with a higher step count. The tracker set for a female said: “Stop watching Dancing with the Stars,” along with other negative feedback and a lower step count.

That gender bias intrigued some listeners at the talk, which was co-sponsored by Drew’s Women’s and Gender Studies Department and a Mellon Digital Humanities Grant.

“It’s so weird,” said Drew sophomore Olivia Thompson.

Wernimont said modern step trackers cater to white, middle-class customers. The devices do not ask for ethnicity or social-class, which might calibrate them more accurately.

As audience members examined a 19th-century pedometer brought by Wernimont, she said there are no U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulations to ensure the accuracy, efficacy or data security of today’s step trackers.

“I only came here for the extra credit,” said Elsa Nygard, a junior at Drew. “But I’m glad I stayed. I learned so much about something that I never gave a second thought to.”

MorristownGreen.com correspondent Christina Beviano is a studying political science and history at Drew University (’22).

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