Illustrations by Louise Pomeroy

From Oil to Oprah: An Oral History of the StairMaster

The untold origin story of an iconic workout machine, told one step at a time

Andy Wright
Published in
16 min readFeb 7, 2019

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TThe 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.

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