History of Orbiter Treadmill
Find out below how one man’s knee injury, with God’s divine guidance and mercy, has improved lives of many in postoperative rehabilitation, cardio conditioning and obtaining weight loss goals.
My name is Clayton Lee. I am the inventor of the Orbiter Treadmill. This is the history of how the Orbiter went from a God given idea in my first day of rehab, to becoming the treadmill with the lowest impact, highest cardio, greatest energy return, and lowest electrical power use.
I am not an engineer, physician or physical therapist. And I certainly was not a fitness company executive looking to build the “next big thing” when I invented the Orbiter’s radically different shock absorbing surface and suspension system. I had experienced an extraordinary, near crippling injury, and decided I could help myself and others by building something I was told repeatedly could not be built.
GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS, WHO KNOWS?
Shortly after I hurt my knee, I became restless and resentful about not being able to walk. I was afraid I might never walk or run again, and if I did it would probably be with a severe limp. Then one evening around dusk as I lay staring out my hospital window, watching the sunset – something happened. I felt as if my mind and soul had been pried open and a cool breeze was being piped through me. I felt God’s presence and I heard Him speaking to me:
“Relax. Be patient. Something good will come of this.”
And a few months later it began. The first moment I placed my foot on that floor in physical therapy I pulled it back and knew, absolutely knew what my new treadmill was and what it could be and do for people. Almost immediately I felt it was my personal responsibility to invent, develop and make this machine available to the world. And that is what I have done ever since.
It began while I was recovering from my own severe knee injury suffered one afternoon while playing a simple game of touch football with family and friends. My whole world changed as I leaped to knock down a Peter Bean pass (I missed) and came down wrong – very wrong.
All I remember was hearing a loud cracking sound, much like a tree limb breaking, and lying helplessly as my friends crowded around me.
The bottom portion of my left leg was ‘rotated’ ninety degrees to the left of my knee and upper leg. It was ugly. One of my friends vomited at the site of it. All I could think of to say was, “Take me to the hospital”.
“…PROMISE ME YOU WON’T AMPUTATE…”
A few hours after the accident, I was lying in my hospital room and in came Dr. Burdeaux. He couldn’t promise I would ever be walk again. The bottom portion of my leg literally dangled from the knee. And the knee was swollen as big as a medium sized watermelon. As they wheeled me into the operating room the next morning I started bargaining first with the nurses, then with Dr. Burdeaux, telling them I wouldn’t be put to sleep until they promised not to amputate my leg, no matter what. Dr. Burdeaux promised me he wouldn’t amputate, even if I had zero function. I was at peace.
HOW THE ORBITER WAS BORN
Dr. Burdeaux performed a remarkable reconstruction of my mangled knee. Six months later I tried to walk for the first time since the injury. The pain was intense and I felt like I was going to hurt it again if I took another step. When I told the physical therapist that it was too painful to walk on the hard surface, and could I please walk on a softer flexible surface until I was better, she laughed and said there was no such thing! I knew better. I knew there was a better way to rehabilitate my knee than having to experience such pain, so I went home and thought about it. A few weeks later I figured out a way to partially simulate my newly invented surface by ‘rolling’ against the clutch on my girlfriend Julie’s old Volvo. The second time I tried it my knee made a cracking sound that sounded bad, but felt good. I tried it again and it felt even better! When I got out of the car I seemed to have better movement. I was very excited.
The following day my therapist and my doctor at The University of Texas medical center were dumbfounded. They compared my range of motion from the previous therapy session and could not believe their eyes. At first the doctor told the nurse that she must have incorrectly recorded my progress from the previous session. But when she showed him the numbers from my other sessions that corresponded closely to the last one, he asked me if I had done anything that might have caused this unusual amount of recovery. He told me I had made about three weeks progress in two days. He wanted to know what had happened. I thought to myself, “Clayton, you may be onto something & he probably won’t believe you anyway,’ so I just said, “I have no idea, doctor.”
Before the doctor left, he told me and nurse that he’d never seen adhesions break and range of motion return that quickly. That affirmation started me on my quest to bring a safer and more comfortable experience to recovering orthopedic patients, and a better way to walk and run for everybody.
“IT CAN’T BE BUILT” – THAT’S WHAT THE SO CALLED EXPERTS TOLD ME
I struggled with finding engineers who would work on this machine with me. I can’t remember how many confidentially agreements I had signed by top engineers who all told me just about the same thing:
“Don’t try to build it. The forces involved are similar to a tight rope walker at the circus. When the performers are at the middle of the tight rope they exert tremendous pressures on the supporting scaffolds. That’s OK because the scaffolds are stationery. But you are trying to make this surface move, and any type of chain or roller you design will be fighting this basic problem of opposing forces…”
Then they’d throw this one in as I was leaving: “…And, Clayton, have you ever actually walked, much less run, across the surface of a trampoline? This doesn’t seem like something people would want to do . . .”
FOR PEOPLE WITH IDEAS
For those of you who have something you want to do – that you feel you must do – that is of honorable intent and feeds your imagination with possibility – that others consider unreasonable – go ahead and do it. Most inventive, artistic, scientific and new business endeavors are first judged unworthy by peers, family and well meaning friends. If you know someone who is struggling with the pursuit of something they believe important – be open and encouraging. They just might be onto something special. Create it, invent it. I believe we all have inventing inside us. Let the inventor in you invent. Ideas are not accidents. I believe they are given to us and are meant to be acted upon.
THE HARDEST PART
I’ve told people that the hardest part of building Orbiter, ‘the machine that couldn’t be built’, was the battle I had in my own mind. Who was I to question these licensed mechanical engineers, college professors (one was a dean) and other experts who told me to just ‘forget it’, and get on with my life? I’d get real down and block the whole thing from my mind for a couple of days. But I couldn’t forget the pain I’d experienced in physical therapy, and the pain of my fellow patients as they cried out for relief that never seemed to come. The oldest patients had it the worst. I kept thinking, “If it’s this hard and this painful for me, in my twenties, what’s it like for the patients in their sixties and older?”
I felt I had to do something for myself and for them, but I needed help. I needed to know if I was on the right track. I prayed for guidance and assurance that what I was doing was right. Was what was once described as ‘Clayton’s obsession’ really in the best interest of these patients? Could I, with no background or experience in medicine or physical therapy or engineering build a surface that would make rehab kinder experience? A surface that would benefit persons after their recovery? A surface to benefit those who have never been injured?
GOD ANSWERED MY PRAYERS – ALWAYS
Sometimes within minutes and almost always within twenty four hours, my spoken and often written prayers, were answered. Sometimes the answers came in the form of a design breakthrough, meeting someone, a phone call, letter, or in other ways. The answers told me I was doing the right thing, and to continue. I feel God decreed and blessed the Orbiter treadmill.
ONE EXPERT WAS RIGHT
I will always be grateful to my surgeon, Dr. Burdeaux, for two things:
The great reconstruction he performed on my knee, and the time he took to meet with me and discuss my ideas for a trampoline-like treadmill.
When I phoned Dr. Burdeaux and told him I had an idea for a machine that could improve orthopedic rehabilitation, I didn’t know how he would respond. He was intrigued and asked me to come by after he finished seeing patients. At the time, all I knew about Dr. Burdeaux was that he had performed a beautiful reconstruction on my nearly destroyed knee. I did not know that Dr. Burdeaux was a respected researcher and a past president of the Texas Association of Orthopedic Surgeons. We met and I told him about my concept. He was excited and we spent an hour or so discussing it.
Dr. Burdeaux was a compassionate, caring doctor, who always took extra time with me and his other patients. His belief that my idea could benefit people in pain, and anyone who walks, jogs or runs for exercise. He explained to me that many individuals are forced to live with various conditions that make walking, jogging and running exercise too painful to endure. He said my idea would help them too.
Dr. Burdeaux encouraged me to build the machine, and he continued to encourage me through the years it took to develop it, and especially in times when I felt like quitting. He was certain that I could, and that I should produce this machine that would be like no other – to do one simple thing – remove pain and add comfort.
MY FIRST MOTHER IN LAW – AN ANGEL
Like a lot of people in Houston, the oil crunch in the early 1980s left its mark on me. That, combined with my problems with alcohol & drugs caused me to wonder where I would get the money to build my idea. My first marriage mother in law, was a truly wonderful lady. I admired, respected and loved Sue Ann from the moment we met back in the late 1960’s, when Julie and I first met at Lamar High School. When Sue Ann offered to fund the building of a prototype, I couldn’t have been happier. Some men joke or complain about their mother in laws. I’ve been so lucky – both of mine have been kind, intelligent women. Sue Ann Reagan (formerly Sue Ann Peterkin when we first met) died Friday, June 20, 2003. I miss you Sue Ann.
MY BROTHER FINDS MY FIRST ENGINEER
With funding taken care of, I called my brother, Chip, and asked, if he knew any engineers that might work on this machine with me? I needed an unconventional mechanical engineer, as the conventional (rational?) engineers I’d approached had turned me down.
Chip called back a few days later and gave me the name & telephone number of Larry Weigand. Larry was unconventional in his thinking and together, in his garage, we built the first two prototypes, including the first one that actually worked. I named it Rollerbounce. This crude prototype did one great thing – it proved ‘experts’ were wrong. This machine could be built and it would feel the way I thought it would feel.
WHY THE EXPERTS WERE WRONG
What so called experts in the fitness and rehab fields didn’t count on was that where walking or running across a stationary trampoline was awkward, walking or running on a moving suspended surface was smooth and very comfortable. On a trampoline the bounce comes right back through your feet and the rest of your body, causing you to bounce. On my Rollerbounce (which I renamed Orbiter in 1988), the ‘bounce’ disappears behind you, and reappears only as a natural energy return, actually helping lift your rear leg as you begin your next stride.
LARRY LEAVES AND JEFF ARRIVES
Larry and his family made a decision to drop out of the project so I was once again searching for an engineer who could help me refine this first working prototype. I had been producing music for several years and in the summer of 1986, I was introduced a band named Peristyle. The band’s co-lead singer and co-songwriter, Stewart Meredith, introduced me to his younger brother Jeff, who was just finishing high school. Eight months after that introduction, after my family’s move to Irvine, California, I received a short letter from Jeff. I was living in Irvine, California at the time with my wife Julie and infant daughter, Caroline.
Jeff’s letter said,
“Dear Mr. Lee,
My brother told me that you are interested in inventions. I too am interested in these types of things. He told me your treadmill invention is being stored at Rivendel Recording Studios. If you ever come back to Houston, I would like to work on it with you.
Jeff was barely out of John Foster Dulles High School, didn’t have a great deal of drafting experience, but we got along and most important – Jeff was smart and he admired the machine’s concept and thought its future was bright. Jeff and I produced an improved prototype, made a video with a great looking girl named Kane running on it, added one of Stuart’s songs – ‘Emerald Skies’ – as background music, and started showing the video to prospective investors.
I WOULDN’T LET HIM INVEST
One Sunday Jeff and I went over to the Houston River Oaks home of a man who wanted to provide one hundred to two hundred thousand dollars of initial capital. My business plan required two million dollars and this seemed like an excellent start. This was to be our final meeting prior to his funding our new company. The meeting did not go well for me. I just didn’t trust the man, and that’s not the way to start a business, or any other kind of relationship. As Jeff and I were leaving I just told him we’d get back to him later to discuss the amount of his investment. As we drove away I looked at Jeff and said,“I don’t feel comfortable with this man. I don’t want his money. Let’s find somebody else, somebody we can trust.”
It was especially disappointing since we had been talking for a couple of months and had thought it was going to work.
THE COMPANY IS FORMED
At the time I was broker with Shearson Lehman Brothers. Monday followed that Sunday meeting the and when I walked in the look on my face told my office mate, that something was up. Former Exxon chemical engineer Bill Walstead, took one look at me and asked, “Clayton, what’s wrong? You’re always in such a good mood. You seem down today.”
When I told Bill about the Sunday meeting and my decision to look elsewhere for capital, he shocked me by saying he would provide the funding to get the company started. We went in for our morning sales meeting and afterward I tendered my resignation to Shearson Lehman Brothers, and left to form Orbiter, known first as Lee-Meredith Laboratories, then Lee-Meredith Industries, Inc., and finally Orbiter, in the summer of 1987.
My long time attorney friend Knox Hughes was actually the first to fund my new company, providing needed capital to open the doors, order parts and begin operations while Bill Walstead was arranging to sell some stock he owned. Bill’s long time friend, Brown & Root mechanical engineer Jim Carnes, worked with me and Jeff and was instrumental in building and refining our initial prototypes. We began selling production units in 1989. Our first customers included the Miami Dolphins, New York Mets and Cleveland Cavaliers.
Orbiter’s patented combination of trampoline-like comfort and treadmill stability is regarded by those who have used and those who have prescribed its use as the ‘world’s safest, most comfortable treadmill’.
From professional athletes in perfect health, to orthopedic patients recovering from injury or surgery like myself, from the U.S. Military to NASA’s Astronaut training and rehabilitation programs, from royalty to everyday people, I believe the Orbiter’s unique wonderful surface is a gift to all of us, from the Creator of all there is. I am so grateful to have been so privileged to have been given the responsibility to help bring Orbiter treadmills to people who need and want them.
Orbiter is a gift. I run on my Orbiter treadmill nearly every day, and I know that without it my running days would be over by now. And like many, I love to run, walk, jog – what a wonderful feeling. It is an honor to produce this machine that is now loved by so many. It is a blessing to have worked with people who believed in my ideas and whose own talents and ideas have blossomed along the way. I am grateful for the support of my Mom, my Dad and my brother Chip during this journey. My inspiring wife Donna Sue, and my daughter Caroline. And to Jim Walstead, who died in a tragic auto accident in East Texas – Jim was one of several who have served as Production Manager at Orbiter. Jim was tireless worker, and a good friend to many. We miss you Jim.
Lois Walstead was reunited with son Jim a number of years ago now. We all grieve her loss, especially for husband Bill and family, but at the same time we celebrate this woman who gave so much to so many. After Jim’s death, Lois and Bill became actively involved helping others through The Compassionate Friends http://www.compassionatefriends.org chapter in Baytown, Texas. Lois loved life, loved her family, and she loved God, spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ whenever and wherever she could. We miss you Lois, and we’ll never forget your spirit and passion.
The Orbiter Treadmill is dedicated to those in pain and who are healthy, improve their fitness, want to lose weight, and those who strive to achieve more, without harming their knees and other parts of their body.
To be a part of your solution – I thank you.
To those I’ve met, and those I will never have the honor to meet, I thank you.
Thank you God for trusting me to work this odd combination of technologies in your name. Praise God, the One Source of All. God bless.