If you’re in the gym this weekend, toning up on a weight machine, push a little harder and smile in tribute to the cantankerous fellow who made it possible: Arthur Jones.
It is the rare character who lives with the gusto, the contrariness, or the impact of Jones, who died this week at the age of 80.
Back in 1970, Arthur Jones invented and sold the first Nautilus weight machine, which he nicknamed the Blue Monster. And the Nautilus — variable resistance weight machines, named for the nautilus-shaped cam that makes them work — revolutionized training, helping trigger the fitness craze, turning gyms from dingy, barbell strewn hide-outs to sweaty, Spandex-wrapped social hangouts.
Jones was not likely to be found in Spandex. He was blunt, wore thick black eyeglasses and chinos, and looked more like a geek than a body builder, or a raconteur. He got interested in exercise equipment, he told Forbes magazine back in 1983, after frustration with his own body-building efforts at the Tulsa, Oklahoma, YMCA in 1948:
“I ended up with the arms and legs of a gorilla on the body of a spider monkey. I figured there was something wrong with the exercise tool.”
Jones personal motto, according to this obituary in the Washington Post, was “younger women, faster planes, more crocodiles.”
Jones was married six times, and each of his wives was between the ages of 16 and 20 when he married her. He was ninth-grade drop out (“I should have dropped out in the sixth grade,” he once said), and his passion for wild animals took him to Rhodesia with his family, where he helped wrangle wild animals for movies, pre-Nautilus.
With the money he made from selling the Nautilus company in 1986, he bought a 600 acre ranch near Ocala, Florida, and stocked it with elephants, rhinoceroses, alligators, crocodiles — and three used Boeing 707 jets. That ranch has evolved into the renowned fly-in community Jumbolair (still owned and run by one of Jones’ ex-wives, Terri), whose most famous pilot-resident is John Travolta.
Arthur Jones’ life offers plenty of lessons — not the least of which is to turn your frustrations into enthusiasms — but perhaps the easiest lesson is, scan the obituaries every day, because it’s like panning for gold. The New York Times story on Jones, along with the Washington Post obituary, are a reminder that there are real people with great stories behind much of what we take for granted every day.
Not to mention priceless nuggets of human character. How else would you discover that the inventor of Nautilus exercise equipment was a life-long smoker?