The 1980s were a terrible time to be in the oil business in Oklahoma. After the energy crises of the 1970s, when petroleum was scarce, there was now a surplus, and the price per barrel plummeted. This was very bad news for many Oklahomans, including George Schupp and Jim Walker. Orders to their custom manufacturing company in Tulsa, where most of their customers worked in energy, dried up.

Then Jim made the life-changing decision to follow up on a classified ad for a used car. That car was owned by Lanny Potts, who also worked in the oil business but was an inventor on the side. This chance meeting between a man with idle machines and a man with lots of ideas would give rise not just to one of the most iconic pieces of workout equipment ever invented, but to a cultural phenomenon. Within years, all over the country, everyone from run-of-the-mill gym bunnies to movie stars would be dripping sweat as they climbed to nowhere on the StairMaster.

Interviews were condensed and edited for clarity and length.

George Schupp, then a founder of StairMaster, now retired: What would happen is that every morning, probably about 7 or 8 a.m., Jim, myself, and Lanny would all meet out there, because we didn’t have anything to do except commiserate. We’d sit around and brainstorm. Finally, one day we said, “Okay, let’s look at an industry that’s really going good.” And so we decided on the fitness industry.

Lanny talked to his doctor, who suggested that stair climbing is a very good exercise. The only problem is you do as much damage coming down as the benefit gained going up. Damage to your shins and your joints and so on and so forth.

Figures from the original StairMaster patent filed by Lanny Potts in 1987.

Lanny is a very creative kind of guy. He’s got a satchel full of inventions. So just planting that seed in his mind was about all he needed to go forth with the idea. He started designing in his mind a machine that would climb stairs without the disadvantage of coming back down.

Rich Hanson was working for Nautilus—manufacturers of the strength-training machine of the same name that is largely credited with changing gym culture from one of barbells and weights to one of machines — when he saw an ad for the StairMaster in a magazine and knew he had to check out the company.

Rich Hanson, then co-owner and West Coast sales director at StairMaster, now president and co-founder of RealRyder International: When I first visited them in Tulsa and met Lanny, I thought, “Okay, this is one of those guys, you know: the inventor.” He had the inventor look in his eyes — kind of on a different planet than the rest of us. He told me stories about dreaming of doing pullups on the moon and how that led to another of his inventions. Lanny tells the story of how he got the idea for the StairMaster when he was in the Air Force. They were stationed in Italy and lived in a fourth-floor walk-up. No elevator; carrying groceries and those kinds of things up the stairs. And, wow, you know, that’s a pretty good workout!

Ralph Cissne ran a small advertising agency in Tulsa in the 1980s when one of his employees told him he’d heard about a guy working on a new exercise machine. Immediately captivated by the concept, Cissne would eventually manage StairMaster’s advertising and marketing during its formative years.

Ralph Cissne, then director of marketing, now a creative strategist and author: I said, “Let’s call him and go see it tomorrow.” Because when I was in high school, running stairs was what you had to do if the coach punished you.

So we go out there, and it was a revolving staircase with a brake. It didn’t have a computer yet. The side panel was silver, and it had blue script that said “The Ergometer 6000.” I said, “That’s a model number, not a brand name.” We came up with a short list of names, and StairMaster was on that list, and so that’s what we went with.

The StairMaster 6000 brochure cover and a StairMaster 1983 ad. Courtesy: Rich Hanson (left) and Ralph Cissne

Hanson: They had a big ol’ metal building, and it was empty, but they had chalk drawings on the floor of where things were going to be. This is receiving, this is inventory. And I’m looking, going, “Wow, where are all the StairMasters?” And in the corner, there was one guy welding a StairMaster together.

Cissne: I got on it. Of course, I was wearing a suit, you know, because that’s how you dressed in those days. I wasn’t on it for very long, but I didn’t have to be. I just knew. I said, “Wow.” One, the brake wasn’t quite fully developed, so you were immediately sprinting. You can’t keep that up very long. Just climbing, overcoming the weight of gravity on a slow climb — which was eventually the case, because the breaking was fine-tuned — is just a grueling workout.

Schupp: We, particularly Lanny, had the idea that in the fitness industry, the bigger and harder and meaner and tougher-looking a machine was, the better. It was intimidating. The steps were made out of a steel tread plate.

In 1983, the StairMaster 5000, the original revolving-staircase machine, debuted at the National Sporting Goods Association trade show in Chicago. Interest was immediate, and momentum built slowly. The StairMaster was a shiny new option for then-Spartan gym floors — and it actually worked.

Cissne: Before I even saw the machine, I said, “Wow, this has huge potential.” Because I didn’t know of another stair-climbing machine. I mean, there was an exercise bike — those had been around — and then there are the machines where you put a belt around your waist and it jiggles your fat and silly stuff like that.

Hanson: The only choices people had for a cardio exercise back then in a gym were a Lifecycle bike and aerobics. Treadmills weren’t very sophisticated then as they are now. Even though treadmills had been around for 20, 30 years in universities and hospitals, they really hadn’t made their way into a health club. So there was a cardio component that was missing.

Cedric Bryant, then senior vice president of research and development at StairMaster, now president and chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise: Back then, really your two primary options in terms of aerobic or cardio exercise were the motor-driven treadmill, which is still around, and the stationary bike. The StairMaster became the third large category option for people who were looking for a cardio or aerobic exercise device.

Cissne: At one of the first trade shows — people build these exorbitant booths and banners—we said, “No, we’re gonna have a banner hanging from the ceiling, we’re going to have a kiosk in the center, and we’re gonna have people sign up. And for every four machines, we’ll have a sales rep, and that’s it.” It was Spartan. We don’t need a lot of flash and glitz. All we have to do is get people on the machine, get them to experience the workout, and take their order. It was a mob scene. Everybody was talking about it. They weren’t talking about anything else. They were talking about the StairMaster workout.

Jim Peterson, then director of sports medicine at StairMaster, now owner of publishing companies Healthy Learning and Coaches Choice: When you climb stairs, there’s a tremendous load force and a tremendous stress on your knees. When you put the ball of your foot down, you push up—that is very, very difficult on the joints of your hips and knees. The StairMaster eliminated all that. Not only did it not add to the stress you typically have when you run or climb stairs, it reduced it significantly. There was no morning-after regret.

Bryant: The StairMaster provides a great stimulus to the cardiovascular system and the lower extremities, in terms of the muscles — the hips, buttocks, thighs, calves. It provides a pretty comprehensive stimulus to improve the functioning of the cardiovascular system, as well as the lower-body muscular skeletal system. It’s going to improve the strength and endurance of your lower-body muscles. It’s going to help with promoting maintenance of bone mass. It’s also going to give you quite a nice stimulus to improve the functioning of your cardiovascular system.

Peterson: The problem with treadmills is that a lot of people can’t run, but almost everybody can step. It’s a simple exercise. It was a simple exercise designed for everybody.

The company grew quickly. Incorporated in 1983, the original three founders started adding employees right away. Then they teamed up with four former Nautilus employees — including Rich Hanson — who all became co-owners in the company. By the mid-1980s, they had approximately 200 employees, including those who worked in a Tulsa factory manufacturing StairMasters. In 1986, the company debuted the StairMaster 4000 Personal Trainer (4000 PT)—a smaller, more affordable machine with two pedal steps instead of a revolving staircase. Then things really got crazy.

Schupp: We introduced the 4000 PT at a trade show held at Opryland over in Nashville. That was definitely our most successful piece of equipment. People were in line trying to use the machine. That’s when our sales really took off. We were shipping something like, oh, 1,500 a month, something like that.

The StairMaster 4000 PT brochure cover. Courtesy: Rich Hanson

Cassian Sandeberg, then a personal trainer for Sports Connection and Sports Club/LA, now founder of Bolder Fitness in Los Angeles: Honestly, that big one with the stairs was an amazing workout. But nobody wanted to do it because it was so damn hard! You’re just climbing stairs for X amount of time. And it was such a behemoth of a machine — I mean, you could get two people on there. The genius of [the 4000 PT] was how small it was. As a gym, you could easily fit three of them in the space of just one treadmill.

Joe Cirulli, CEO and founder of Gainesville Health and Fitness, one of the earliest gyms to offer StairMasters: When we talk about the “StairMaster police,” we had three of them inside of my club. We had to tell the members, “You only have 20 minutes to use it,” because there were so many people waiting to use this apparatus. We had to have people say, “Okay, Mark, your 20 minutes is up now. Come on, let Mary on.”

Hanson: There were sign-up sheets, and people would get mad. They’d walk behind them — let’s say there are 10 steppers in a row — and they would look at the console, which had an LED screen that went from left to right. If someone was near the right side of the screen, their time was almost up. So you would stand behind somebody who was just about finished.

Steve Uria, celebrity fitness trainer and founder of Switch Playground in New York: Women back in the day would wear leggings with a G-string bikini over their tights, and I clearly remember seeing them lining up to get on that machine, because it had just come out. They’d be wearing the Reebok classics with the Velcro and all the different colors and the leg warmers. That’s when I became a trainer, in the late ’80s, when the StairMaster had first come out, and the ladies were all about it. Absolutely.

Cirulli: StairMaster became the brand name for exercise, like Kleenex became the brand name for tissues.

Schupp: It was a lot of fun. Naturally, we were enjoying our prosperity. But at the same time, it was the kind of business where it’s not like we were manufacturing shovels or something and shipping them out to hardware stores. This was a product that had some personality. We always had new customers. It wasn’t a drab, dull business. We were manufacturing a product that was always doing something new.

If you don’t know what a StairMaster Exercise System 4000 Personal Trainer is, you are probably not rich, famous, or in the least bit vain. Tom Cruise, after all, wants to take his 4000 along to movie locations. So do Shirley MacLaine and Jim Belushi. Tom Selleck, Steve Guttenberg, and other stars will share one on the set of the sequel to Three Men and a Baby. Oprah Winfrey refers to the 4000 PT as her “new little friend” and spends forty minutes a day on the machine trying to stay within the bounds of her Calvins. — “How I Learned to Love the Burn” by Donald R. Katz, (Esquire, August 1990)

Cissne: We did a lot of advertising, so I did all these model shoots and things. One of the models and I became good friends, and we’d been out to lunch. She said, “You know, I have a good friend who would love one of these.” I said, “Well, here’s my number. Have her call me.” So I’m in my office two days later, and I get a call. And this model says, “My friend said you could get me a deal on a StairMaster.” I said, “No, they don’t give discounts, even to the largest fitness clubs. I mean, the price is the price.” And she says, “Oh, well, I can afford one, and I’d really like one.” And I said, “Who’s this?” And she said, “Well, this is Vanna, Vanna White.” So that was a big laugh, and I said, “Well, Vanna, let me give you a phone number, and they’ll take care of you. Maybe they’ll give you free shipping or something.” She was as nice as can be.

“He broke the StairMaster at Camp David; he pounded it till it didn’t work. If I’m on it for five minutes, you have to take me out on a stretcher.” —Burton J. Lee, MD, White House physician to President George Bush (Washington Post, January 2013)

Schupp: We had gotten a call one day at the office, and they wanted to know if they could buy a StairMaster, and we said, “Of course you can.” They placed the order and told us where it was to be shipped. And it was to New York. “Well, what’s the name of the person that’s buying it so we can bill it and so on and so forth?” “Well, we can’t tell you.” “What you mean you can’t tell us?” It was actually going to Robert De Niro’s place in New York City. So we shipped it up there. About the time that machine got there, I was in New York for a trade show. So they [De Niro, his assistant, and two personal trainers] came to the trade show, and we stood around and talked a while, and then they were going to walk around. A guy two booths down came over and said, “You boys hang out with some heavy-duty people!” The next night, I went over to De Niro’s place and showed him how to use the machine.

Bryant: It was in several movies and television shows. I remember Seinfeld had a spoof of it with George falling on it. It was pretty iconic.

Schupp: Probably the person who did as much for us as anybody was Oprah Winfrey. Oprah had her own machine, and hardly a day went by for a period of time that she didn’t mention StairMaster on her show.

There was a specific reason — body part, actually — that so many people were willing to wait in line for the 4000 PT.

Schupp: There was a thing they called the “StairMaster butt.” If you use a StairMaster, you’re going to end up with a nicely shaped butt, is what it means.

Hanson: How do I say this? They thought it firmed up their derriere, and they got a good workout.

StairMasters also gained popularity with firefighters. Today, the Candidate Physical Ability Test, a physical fitness test for prospective firefighters, includes climbing a revolving-staircase machine wearing 75 pounds of weights.

Firefighters often take on extreme stair climbs to raise money for charity. Jim Campbell, a firefighter in Indiana, carried out such a feat in 2006 to raise money for a charity started in honor of his brother-in-law, who was killed during 9/11. His goal: beat the record of Seattle-area firefighter Bill Ekse, who had stayed on a StairMaster for 24 hours and walked 66,103 steps.

Jim Campbell, deputy fire chief, Pike Township Fire Department: I jumped on the StairMaster we had sitting at the firehouse. I was on it for five minutes and absolutely hated it. I was going to puke. After about five minutes, you’re panting like a dog, you feel like your heart’s going to explode, and you’re going, “Holy heck, this is tough!” After several days, I got up to 10 minutes. After several weeks, I got up to 15 or 20 minutes, and then I started feeling like I was getting in better shape both mentally and physically.

I had arranged for the HealthPlex gym to stay open 24 hours. They opened at 5 a.m., so that’s when I got there, and I hit the stair machine at about 5:30 a.m. and just started at it.

Jim Campbell toasting with his wife after he finished his climb.

I was feeling really strong for the first 12 hours. In the first 12 hours, I managed about 68,000 or 70,000 steps. The next 12 hours, especially from about 11:00 p.m. to 5:30 a.m., that was tough. I discovered why it is you only do an event like this in what they call “half tights” or biking trunks. How shall I put it as delicately as I can? There are chafing issues.

Campbell raised approximately $20,000 for his brother-in-law’s memorial fund and other charities and ended up climbing 106,377 steps, or 13.4 vertical miles — the equivalent of climbing the steps of the Empire State Building more than 56 times.

Campbell: When I finished, I was in a little bit of a haze. I remember walking over and sitting down in a chair and falling asleep for about a minute. Then I woke back up. The HealthPlex had actually opened for business at that point, so the regular folks were coming in. I gathered up my supplies — my fan and my towel — and just kind of wandered off.

StairMaster inventor Lanny Potts died of leukemia in 1990. In 1997, the remaining owners sold StairMaster to Garden Way — a Troy, New York-based manufacturer of garden power tools looking to expand its portfolio — for $30 million. Since then, the brand has gone through several ownership changes and is currently owned by Core Health and Fitness, which still makes updated versions of the revolving staircase, called the Gauntlet, and the 4000 PT, called the Freeclimber. Despite the 4000 PT’s popularity in the 1990s, the original revolving-staircase machine has made a comeback.

Tim Hawkins, vice president of global sales and marketing at Core Health and Fitness: Today’s StairMaster is a full-line brand that has its roots in climbing — in stepping, basically — but is now really a brand that encompasses the high-intensity interval training category, or HIIT, as it’s known in our industry. It’s become one of the most important fitness trends. The cardiovascular portion of stepping really started this HIIT trend 30, 40 years ago with the advent of the StairMaster. We’ll sell 10 Gauntlets to one stepper. The stepper has very much diminished in popularity, and the stepmill has become the icon of the industry.

The position you’re in on a StairMaster, you’re up on a pedestal. In fact, when you step on one, you’re somewhere in the neighborhood of two to three feet up off the floor. Ceiling height matters when we do site surveys to drop these in. When you’re up on one, you’re visible. I mean, you’re up on the throne. There’s an attitude that comes from being on the Gauntlet. It’s not a place to be inconspicuous.

Erin O’Brien, director of marketing, Core Health & Fitness, LLC: It’s the heart rate. It’s that racing heart you get almost instantly as you’re using it. One of the other things people will tell you is you will never see as much sweat as from someone who gets off that machine. From your face to your toes. It just causes a crazy, intense workout from the start, from the first two minutes you’re on it.

Various StairMaster ads from 1988 to 1991. Courtesy: Ralph Cissne

Uria: People who love it are obsessed with it. I love it, and if I go to the gym and it’s not working and I have to do another machine, I’m miserable. But it’s a tough machine, it’s challenging, and a lot of people hate it because they can’t figure it out or they’re uncomfortable. People in general hate exercise. For a lot of people, just steady cardio—like riding a bike, using a stepper, or walking on a treadmill—doesn’t make sense to those who don’t get the benefits. So, to stand in one spot and step up and down, they’re like, why would you do that? But those like me, who are advocates, love it.

Hawkins: The mill we’re selling today is remarkably similar to the one that was built 30 years ago. And credit to the original StairMaster design team, because that’s a pretty solid design.

Peterson: I’ve personally had a StairMaster for 22 years. I will die and it will still be running.

Schupp: It changed my life in that from where we started, Jim Walker and I were virtually broke because of the downfall of the oil industry. I guess you could say we clawed our way back up the ladder somehow. And to be sure, the more successful StairMaster was, the more fortunate we were. That’s how we acquired, I wouldn’t say a fortune, but that’s how we got fairly wealthy.

Campbell: I’m considering another attempt [at the record]. You’d think at 61 I’d know better, but I don’t. They have [StairMasters] at the firehouse, but I still go down to the HealthPlex and use the one down there. I was just on there yesterday morning for a couple hours. I learned a lot of lessons. I know a lot of things that I would do different. So, I still think that, until Father Time tells me otherwise, 120,000 stairs in 24 hours is possible.