It is astonishing to think that prior to the Industrial Revolution, most power on Earth came directly from either man or animal. You had a few exceptions—river dwellers figured out waterwheels, and the Dutch had their windmills—but for most of us, if you wanted to power something into motion you attached it to an ox, a horse or maybe a broad-shouldered guy named Jeff. And a recent NPR broadcast has drawn lots of ears by highlighting a forgotten animal-powered contraption from the UK: A rotating spit driven by a dog forced to run inside a large hamster-wheel, and motivated to move by a piece of burning coal.
Referred to in the broadcast as "an essential part of every large kitchen in Britain in the 16th century," this Turnspit dog and possible Welsh Corgi relative was specially bred to fit inside the running wheel. An 1858 British book called Anecdotes of Dogs describes them as "long-bodied, crooked-legged and ugly dogs, with a suspicious, unhappy look about them." The wheel that they ran inside was attached to a spit holding a piece of meat over the fire. Says NPR:
When any meat was to be roasted, one of these dogs was hoisted into a wooden wheel mounted on the wall near the fireplace. The wheel was attached to a chain, which ran down to the spit. As the dog ran, like a hamster in a cage, the spit turned.
"Turnspit dogs were viewed as kitchen utensils, as pieces of machinery rather than as dogs," says [Amazing Dogs, a Cabinet of Canine Curiosities author Jan] Bondeson. "The roar of the fire. The clanking of the spit. The patter from the little dog's feet. The wheels were put up quite high on the wall, far from the fire in order for the dogs not to overheat and faint."
To train the dog to run faster, a glowing coal was thrown into the wheel, Bondeson adds.
An 1853 British book called The Illustrated Natural History lists this tidbit:
...In this wheel the Dog was accustomed to perform its daily task, by keeping it continually working. As the labour would be too great for a single Dog, it was usual to keep at least two animals for the purpose, and to make them relieve each other at regular intervals. The dogs were quite able to appreciate the lapse of time, and, if not relieved from their toils at the proper hour, would leap out of the wheel without orders, and force their companions to take their place, and complete their portion of the daily toil.
As a dog owner I'm admittedly biased into finding this appalling, which is perhaps not fair to other beasts of burden; I'm sure oxen never thought "Oh great, here comes that guy with the yoke" and no horse looked forward to carrying you and your stupid cart over to the next village. And overworked guys named Jeff are the reason we have labor unions today.
The dogs did get Sundays off, and they would accompany the family to church. Sadly, this is because they were used to warm the family's collective feet in drafty naves.
Usage of Turnspit dogs had spread to America by the 1800s, where they were used in "large hotel kitchens." Interestingly enough, the abuse of these dogs reportedly helped inspire 19th-Century activist Henry Burgh into starting the ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals).
The dogs were phased out, and the breed rendered extinct, by the 20th Century.