Guinea Pigs on an Ergometer

Ian Jamieson recalls his days being tested on the world’s first ergometer. Photo by Rory O’Chee.

29 May 2019

By William O’Chee & Louis Petrin

HTBS meets one of rowing’s earliest ergometer guinea pigs.

The idea of rowing machines is not new, and as Tim Koch and Greg Denieffe have written earlier on HTBS, there was even an indoor rower pictured aboard the Titanic before its tragic maiden voyage.

Many of these early rowing machines used pneumatic or hydraulic resistance. They had two problems, however. The first one was that they were poor at simulating the feel of the water. The second problem was that they didn’t actually measure an oarsman’s output and were therefore of no use in testing athletes.

The first machine which could do that originated in Australia, and is commonly attributed to Frank Cotton, a Professor of Physiology at the University of Sydney. The antecedents of this machine seem to lie in work done by a number of metalworkers who happened to have been members of Leichhardt Rowing Club in Sydney. This notwithstanding, it was Cotton’s genius that gave us the first functional ergometer.

His machine relied on two steel flywheels, one vertical and one horizontal, which were braked by metal bands, similar to those used at that time to bind bales of wool. The machine also boasted a dial which displayed the number of ergs – a measure of energy generated – the athlete achieved. Cotton dubbed it an ergometer.

A later version of Cotton’s ergometer. The earlier model had much larger flywheels and was more upright.

One of Cotton’s “Guinea Pigs”, as he called them, was Ian Jamieson, now aged 84, who kindly shared his memories of Cotton with Hear The Boat Sing. He is perhaps one of Cotton’s few remaining Guinea Pigs.

Jamieson was born in Sydney in 1935 and educated at Newington College, one of Sydney’s elite independent schools, which has a fine tradition of rowing. He was Captain of the VIII in 1954, his last year at the school. The school’s 1st VIII that year was particularly good, but failed to take out the prestigious Head of the River amongst Sydney’s Greater Public Schools.

“We came second by two feet, but that was the only race we lost of all the races that season,” he recalled.  The crew, which was coached by Col Davies, even took out the New South Wales Open Championship, the first schoolboy crew to do so.

Professor Cotton was close to Col Davies, whom he approached to provide some rowers for testing. Davies gave Cotton four boys: Ian Jamieson and the cousins Neville, Barry and Ronald Clinton. They were expected to turn up for a couple of sessions each week after school.

Jamieson remembers the training as being particularly brutal, in part because of Cotton’s uncompromising attitude to training.

“Of course, when you rowed for Cotton, your arse was hanging out,” Jamieson said.

Cotton set the standard very high, demanding the rowers meet a minimum level of 170 ergs in a minute for inclusion in his squad.

“He didn’t know the meaning of fatigue, didn’t know the meaning of getting tired, didn’t know the meaning of anything like that.”

Another factor was the design of the machine itself. Because Cotton’s ergometer used constant braking, there was no respite for the athletes.

“You couldn’t relax at all, because as soon as you slacked off the braking would come on. Both of them [the flywheels] were braked by these steel straps. There was no relaxation at all; you had to keep going, and going and going.”

Professor Cotton in lab coat supervises some of his guinea pigs at work.

Jamieson recalled the degree of resistance experienced by athletes using the early ergometer. “It was heavy duty physical work, you know. I couldn’t compare it to anything really. Those flywheels, they weighed a couple of hundred pounds.”

Cotton was an early pioneer of exercise physiology, and his experiments also involved measuring his athletes’ biological responses to the work they had to perform.

“There was a whole raft of gauges. And we had stuff taped onto us. We were constantly being monitored for blood pressure and heart rate. These would be done at set intervals, every five minutes for example.”

There was a certain lurid fascination for the schoolboy rowers at training, though, which went some way to making up for the discomfort. Cotton’s athletes came entirely from all boys’ schools. However, the University of Sydney had been admitting women to study medicine since 1885, which bought the boys into close proximity with young female medical students.

“Cotton’s lab was next door to the school of anatomy, and while we were waiting we’d look through the windows and watch these good-looking sorts [female medical students] cutting up bodies. They’d leave the windows open because some of the bodies were a bit off. This was 1954, and you had women cutting up bodies, which was quite unusual.”

Cotton died the following year. His work was taken up by Lloyd Williams, a Rhodes Scholar who returned from Brasenose College, Oxford in 1954 and rowed in the Victorian crew that won that year’s King’s Cup. As Head of Research at Repco, an Australian engineering conglomerate, Williams would go on to invent the world’s first air-braked ergometer, which had a much reduced drag and more realistic response on the flywheel.

Ian Jamieson was in the 1954 New South Wales crew that lost the King’s Cup to Victoria. His rowing done, Jamieson turned his back on the river to take a job working in the outback for the Scottish Australian Company, then Australia’s largest agricultural company. He rose to be the Senior Manager for Queensland and the Northern Territory before taking a role with the company in London in the 1970s.

While in the United Kingdom, Jamieson got to know the legendary Commando leader, Lord Lovat, who was a director of the Scottish Australian Company.

“He was a great bloke. I stayed with him for a weekend [in Scotland] and he never let me put my hand in my pocket because I was one of his men.”

Ian Jamieson went on to enjoy a career in international business, including working in places as diverse as the United States and even Madagascar. He now lives in retirement in Brisbane, Australia.

One comment

  1. Before the C2 machine became the standard for testing, we all had to test on a “Dr Gjessing (spelling?!) Ergorow”, which sounds like a more modern version of Cotton’s machine – heavy steel flywheel with weighted strap over it. Score was simply number of revs of the drum in a 6 min test. Was a truly awful machine to test on – the sharp deceleration of the drum during the recovery phase made it very tough in second half of test. Simulated the boat to some extent with a pulley that essentially changed the gearing through the stroke (hard at catch, slightly lighter through the middle then harder again).

    Big ugly orange thing. We used to joke (darkly) about an appointment with the doctor. Are there any left?

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