Arthur Jones, 80; his fitness machines were the standard

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Times Staff Writer

Arthur Jones, the flamboyant inventor and entrepreneur whose Nautilus machines made weightlifting chic in the 1970s and ‘80s and changed exercise culture in America, has died. He was 80.

Jones died Tuesday of natural causes at his estate in Ocala, Fla., according to his son, William.

“Nautilus revolutionized the fitness-center business,” said Joe Moore, president of International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Assn., a trade organization for commercial health clubs. “Many of the innovations he came up with in the 1970s are still incorporated into strength training on machines of all brands.”


When Jones introduced his first Nautilus machine at a fitness competition in Culver City in 1970, weightlifting was a narrowly specialized activity undertaken by hard-core bodybuilders, often in dank gyms. Their response to his machine was less than enthusiastic.

“Real men use free weights,” was their mantra. But Jones’ line of machines, which offered a variable resistance technique to replace the dead weight of traditional dumbbells and barbells, began to catch on with an audience he never envisioned: average people.

From the early 1970s to the mid-1980s, Nautilus cornered the conditioning business in America. Stylish Nautilus facilities sprang up around the country and were staffed by knowledgeable trainers who guided clients through brisk 30-minute workouts.

“These Nautilus gyms really took off,” said Wayne Westcott, a professor at Quincy College in Massachusetts and fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Boston.

“It was a quick, intense workout. There was a fixed movement pattern on each machine, so there wasn’t a large learning curve. It was far safer and [more] time efficient than free weights.”

Jones, a rough-hewn man who carried a gun, chain-smoked Pall Mall cigarettes and once boasted that he “shot 630 elephants and 63 men, and I regret the elephants more,” reaped the benefits. He was secretive about his wealth, but at one time his Nautilus company was believed to be grossing $300 million a year.


The son of two physicians, Jones was born in 1924 in Arkansas and grew up outside Tulsa, Okla. He dropped out of school in the ninth grade, saying that he had learned all he needed from the education system, and rode the rails for a time before serving in the Navy during World War II.

After the war, he set off on an eclectic career that included running an airline in South America, dodging danger in Africa as a big-game collector for zoos and circuses, and working as a pilot, moviemaker and host of a syndicated animal show, “Wild Cargo.”

A multimillionaire, Jones developed Jumbolair Aviation Estates in Ocala whose most noted resident is actor John Travolta. Jones’ personal 600-acre estate in Ocala was populated with 90 elephants, 300 alligators, 400 crocodiles, a gorilla, three rhinos and a menagerie of poisonous snakes and insects. He owned and flew several jetliners and was married six times; most of his wives were age 16 to 20 on their wedding day.

Jones once summed up his favorite activities: “Younger women, faster airplanes and bigger crocodiles.” He is survived by at least four children.

Self-taught in most of the disciplines he mastered, Jones learned physiology by studying cadavers, a daughter once told People magazine. “We always had an arm or something in the freezer,” she said.

He built his first exercise machine while living at the Tulsa YMCA in 1948. During the next 22 years, he would continue to refine and improve the engineering, eventually coming up with the pullover torso machine. He called his company Nautilus because the kidney-shaped cam that was a key development in creating his line of equipment looked like a nautilus seashell.


Jones not only developed the machines; he also designed a workout regimen to go with them. His system preached steady, controlled repetition, which was not always the case in free-weight gyms. A lifter would start by doing one set of eight to 12 repetitions on each machine and work his or her way up to doing three sets on each machine. His regimen demanded correct form with full range of motion, and was to be performed two to three non-consecutive days a week to allow muscles time to recover.

When a lifter could handle doing three sets at a given weight, more weight would be added at the next workout. His machines and workout regimen caught on with professional athletes as well.

After selling Nautilus to Texas oilman Travis Ward in 1986, Jones turned his attention to rehabilitating spine and neck injuries, developing new exercise machines through a company called MedX, which he owned until the mid-1990s. Much of that equipment became staples in sports medicine.

Jones was also interested in improving the lives of geriatric patients in nursing homes, using his Nautilus equipment to regain their range of motion.

Moore, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Assn. president, said that one of the legacies of the Nautilus era was the idea of one-to-one training, which spawned a new industry of personal trainers.

“The Nautilus centers would have a trainer, and a client would go through the line of machines, set the weight pin and move you on to the next machine when you completed your set of repetitions. It was one of the first circuit-training systems,” Moore said.