Ed Pauls, NordicTrack inventor, dies at 80

Ed Pauls, an engineer who turned lumpy couch loungers into winter-sport athletes with NordicTrack, an exercise machine that brought cross-country skiing indoors, died Oct. 9 at his home in Montrose, Colo. He was 80.

His daughter, Terri Pauls, said he had complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

Composed of wood slats, pulleys and wires, the NordicTrack at first glance seemed to resemble a castle-dungeon torturing mechanism rather than an exercise machine that helped stoke the nation’s fitness craze.

According to the 1997 book “Why Didn’t I Think of That?: Bizarre Origins of Ingenious Inventions We Couldn’t Live Without” by Allyn Freeman and Bob Golden, the NordicTrack was featured at medical conventions and praised by cardiologists for its health benefits.

The device was the brainchild of Mr. Pauls, a cross-country skier who worked as a mechanical engineer, designing ski boots and bindings for the Rosemount company.

Mr. Pauls’s breakthrough moment in exercise equipment came one winter day in the early 1970s when he was skiing in the Minneapolis suburbs. Mr. Pauls recalled it had been a particularly dreary outing — the conditions were wetter and colder than usual.

In the middle of his trek, he began to imagine a cross-country skiing simulator that could be used inside his well-heated home.

The machine’s first iterations required the exerciser to strap on ski boots and use real wooden skis. One prototype had a sofa pillow for extra padding.

(Mr. Pauls originally had called his machine the “Nordic Jock” but changed the name after women’s rights groups complained, according to the book by Freeman and Golden.)

After perfecting his design, Mr. Pauls opened a business in his home and sent units to members of the United States ski team. He promoted the machine at exercise expos, touting its total-body workout. He placed advertisements in Smithsonian magazine and Scientific American.

Sales were slow at first — until Olympic silver medalist Bill Koch endorsed the machine. By the mid-1980s, sales reached $5 million a year, with orders taken over the phone or answered by mail by Mr. Pauls and his wife.

Mr. Pauls sold the NordicTrack business to a holding company in 1986 for $22 million. Under new ownership, the NordicTrack company opened 300 retail stores across the country.

Newspaper advertisements promised that NordicTrack users could burn up to 1,100 calories an hour. Sales skyrocketed to more than $450 million in the mid-1990s.

But the NordicTrack’s intimidating appearance ultimately contributed to its downfall. A gym fitness director in New York told Newsday that so few people used the NordicTrack, it “ends up being a clothing rack.”

It also was awkward to use, Gold’s Gym assistant franchising director Rich Minzer told the Star Tribune in 1998. “People don’t want to look bad doing something, especially in the gym in front of people,” he said. “They’d rather get on a treadmill or a Lifecycle. . . . You can’t look bad doing those.”

The company declared bankruptcy in 1998. Surplus NordicTrack equipment was sold out of warehouses for scrap metal, and the NordicTrack name was sold to another company.

Edward Arthur Pauls was born Aug. 28, 1931, in Sheboygan, Wis., and grew up on a dairy farm in Wausau, Wis. He was an engineering graduate of the University of Wisconsin.

Survivors include his wife of 52 years, Florence Melhuse Pauls of Montrose; two children, Terri Pauls, a champion cross-country skier, of Anchorage, and Glenn Pauls of Telluride, Colo.; and two grandchildren.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.