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History of Wind Power

What are Windmills?


Windmills are machines that convert the power from wind into kinetic energy we can use.  They come in different forms and can perform a variety of tasks.  Windmills evolved after man learned to harness the wind to push the sails of a boat. 


Similarly, windmills capture the wind by using sails.  Whereas sails on ships are fixed and are used to push a boat in a single direction, windmill sails are fixed to a rotating shaft (appropriately named the wind shaft) that turns machinery inside of it. 


Many windmills are also fitted so that the sails can be turned in the event the wind changes direction. The sails can turn different machines, such as: saws used for cutting lumber; a turbine to generate electricity; a screw to drain excess water from low-laying areas; a pump to bring water from underground reservoirs to the surface; a set of stones used to grind grain into flour; a grain elevator for storing feed; or to run other farm machinery like sharpening wheels, corn shellers, and hay balers. 


Few windmills across the globe look exactly the same or serve the same purpose.  In general, there are three types of windmills: custom windmills, wind engines, and wind turbines.  The type of windmill built depends on the location, the kind of work, and how much work it needs to perform.  The architecture of these windmills also varies from one country or region to another.  


Why use Windmills?


Windmills are often referred to as “ancient technology,” but the truth is that although man has relied upon the wind for thousands of years, its principles have not changed, and we are able to apply wind technology to meet our modern needs.  It is among the simplest technologies on the planet; by observing the wind, we can see how it easily pushes objects with an exposed surface area. 


With the way we live nowadays, it’s easy to take something simple like a loaf of bread for granted.  Before the 20th century, people could not just drive to the local supermarket and pick up some prepackaged, pre-sliced bread—everything that was eaten had to be made completely from scratch. Wheat is now primarily grown in Nebraska and Kansas, but it used to be grown in the Midwest, which is one of the reasons why there were once so many mills in Illinois


The production of wheat is vital in a society because wheat berries can be pulverized to create flour (from which we make bread, pasta, cake, and many other foods) and bran (a key ingredient in cereals).  Corn can be pulverized to make cornmeal (for bread and other recipes) and feed for farm animals. Before electricity and the internal combustion engine made our lives easier,  settlements depended on natural resources for power. 


Not every town had access to a river (or to a river that was consistently strong enough) from which it could construct a water-powered mill; animal-powered mills were not powerful enough; and immigrants, who often sold all of their worldly possessions to bring their families to America, could not afford to erect and maintain a steam engine mill, which needs a constant supply of water (requiring a wind engine to be purchased) and expensive coal. 


The wind provides more than enough free power to turn machinery on a regular basis. What has made wind power historically troublesome is its unpredictability.  Winds that can gently push fallen leaves on a sunny fall afternoon can also just as easily tear off a roof in a destructive storm. 


Despite this, technology has allowed mills to adapt to changing wind conditions to keep our machines moving. Unlike other energy sources, producing power from the wind does not require heavy excavation of our natural resources; it does not produce any pollution or burn any fossil fuels; it is the safest form of power to use; and, it is a source of energy we can never run out of.  



Wind Power Beginnings


The first practical application of wind energy was employed on sailing ships.  Used in ancient times, tall masts fixed on ships allowed sailors to reef a sail, exposing a large surface area to “catch” the wind and propel the ship.  It was from this concept that the first wind-powered machines were constructed on the land. It is believed that the first small-scale windmill application was a wind-powered pipe organ as documented by Greek architect Heron of Alexandria. 


There are no definitive records, but it is likely that windmills may have been used for other purposes in ancient Rome.  The first large-scale grinding windmills, built in what is now the Middle East, were a far cry from the mills we now know.  In fact, they resembled revolving doors more than anything: these windmills were constructed with rectangular upright sails that were fixed to a vertically-lined shaft.  As the wind blew, it turned the sails circularly to drive machinery for grinding or irrigation (think of a large anemometer). 


Although it is unknown when, exactly, windmills were first used in China, their first written record was around the 13th century.  The windmills there were modeled after the Persian design and were also used for grinding and irrigation.  



European Windmills


Windmills that were first introduced in Europe were constructed along the coastline of the Mediterranean Sea.  It is still unknown why the windmill’s design was changed from the Persian vertical-axis to the traditional horizontal-axis we are now accustomed to, but nonetheless the concept was successful and led to further development of this type. These were all stone tower mills resembling ships in that their sails were, quite literally, of the same construction as those found on ships, except that they were fixed to a rotating shaft. 


The cap and sails were immobile in that they could not be turned if the wind direction changed; such technology was unnecessary, however, because the wind blows almost constantly from the coast. When windmills were first built in England, France, and elsewhere, they were truly crude machines.  Their post-mills, constructed entirely of wood, contained the design aspects to allow them to function, but were not constructed with the wind in mind.  In order to keep the sails into the wind, the entire windmill—balanced upon a post—had to be turned. 


Because they lacked a braking system, these mills could only be stopped by turning them away from the wind and stopping their motion by hand. While these windmills were primitive, they still acquired key characteristics typical to custom windmills.  They were constructed with lattice-framed sails fixed to an inclined wind shaft and could perform a multitude of duties under the right circumstances.   



Dutch Windmills


Four-sailed custom windmills are often immediately labeled—sometimes incorrectly—as Dutch windmills.  The reason for this common mistake is because the Dutch are famous not only for their thousands of windmills but also for their technological advancements long before their innovations were scientifically proven. 


The Dutch truly perfected windmills; in fact, their design basics are still used in today’s wind turbines.  Although other European countries have their own architectural version of the windmill, they are patterned from the Dutch design. The Dutch probably began constructing windmills in the late 1200s, but these post mills, like those in England and France, were used for grinding.  At that time, Holland—largely below sea level—was, in fact, under water, and often plagued by flooding. 


It was not until the 1400s when flood control systems (the famous dykes) were put in place that large numbers of windmills were constructed.  To drain the abundance of water, the Dutch turned to their greatest natural resource, the wind.  Drain mills led to the development of the hollow post, or “wip” mill, a significant improvement from the earlier European post mills.  The larger, stationary base housed the pumping equipment (an Archimedean screw or a scoop wheel), and the upper portion, which could pivot into the wind, contained the mill gearing. 


Wip mills were also constructed with many of the aspects Dutch windmills are known for, including: a tail-pole luffing system; lattice-framework sails with a tapering angle of weather and removable sail-boards; and a Flemish brake system, one in which the miller tugs on a rope (or chain) to activate a band brake that encircles a brake wheel. In the wake of wip mills’ success in reclaiming the land, Dutch tower smock mills began developing. 


Like the wip mills, the Dutch realized that the machinery of the mill itself had no need to be turned and thus were placed in the stationary tower; the sails, which needed to be turned if the direction of the wind changed, were installed in the cap, which could pivot 360 degrees.  The result was the stereotypical octagonal tower, four-sailed windmill most common in Holland. It is interesting to note that Dutch windmills use reed thatch to cover their sides; shingles are unheard of there. 


The fact that windmills of the same style used in Illinois have shingles makes them particularly unique to our country. The Dutch, above all others, employed windmills to perform many industrial jobs, including grinding, sawing, pulverizing, pressing, pumping, draining, and lifting.  At the peak of their popularity, Holland had over 9,000 working windmills.  It’s no wonder Dutch windmill design spread to many European countries, America, Canada, and even Japan.  



American Windmills

The first windmills in America were likely English post mills constructed in colonial Virginia (replicas of these mills have been constructed at Colonial Williamsburg and Flowerdew Hundred).  The Dutch and English both brought windmills to their colonies in the Northeast, many of which still stand in the New England states and in New York. 


Although we label them as Dutch, most of the custom grinding windmills in Illinois were actually constructed by German immigrants, oftentimes with the aid of other area farmers and Dutch craftsmen, incorporating architectural elements from other European windmills.  America is better known for its development of the wind engine, capable of effortlessly pumping water from underground reservoirs in areas where a source of water is not present. 


This not only made it easier for pioneers to settle the western states, but also allowed railroads (which used steam-powered locomotives) to expand across the nation.  



Windmills Today


Now that our priorities have changed, we harness the wind to generate electricity—an important initiative for Illinois which has, historically, depended upon coal, nuclear, and gas power plants. As early as the late 1800s, windmills were being used to generate electricity.  The first successful application was a giant wind engine built by Charles F. Brush, which powered his home in Cleveland, OH.  


In Denmark, Poul la Cour constructed several windmills and established the first wind electrician society.  He believed that custom windmills could be repurposed to generate electricity, especially with the aid of unique sail design.  His findings led to many important wind turbine developments; it’s no coincidence that Vestas, the global leader in wind turbine manufacturing, was established in Denmark. Many European nations developed and perfected wind turbines through the course of the twentieth century.  The Department of Energy and NASA both worked to create efficient utility-scale wind turbines, especially after the oil embargos of the 1970s.  


Although wind turbines have been used by electric utilities for decades, they have only recently been considered as permanent replacement power sources to fossil fuels as concerns for the environment have increased. Wind engines are still used in the Southwest states and around the world where water is in short supply.  Some of the original wind engine manufacturers are still in business and are making clean water accessible for thousands.  


Custom windmills, sadly, were largely destroyed; only a few in America have been preserved, whereas windmills in Holland are protected as national treasures.  Their usefulness ended around the beginning of the twentieth century as engines permanently replaced mills. The mills that survived are now being restored to their former glory as living history museums; some are even capable once again of grinding grist. 



Windmills Tomorrow


There is no doubt that, controversial though they may be, wind turbines will eventually provide the bulk of the energy we will consume so that we may become less dependent upon fossil fuels.  Our best turbines are capable of sustaining around 2 MW, but more efficient turbines are bound to be designed and employed where the winds are most favorable. 


Perhaps Poul la Cour’s experiments of using custom windmills as turbines will become a reality for the thousands of remaining mills, or windmills could become a fashionable housing trend, as companies like ArchWind hope to accomplish.  Regardless of their use and style, wind machines will continue to power mankind.


Wind Technology



3000 B.C.

Humankind’s first use of wind power: wind is harnessed by using a mast and sail to propel boats.


0 to 200 A.D.

Romans introduce wind-powered machines.


500 to 1000

Vertical-axis windmills are used in Persia to grind grist and pump water.



Tower mills develop along the Mediterranean coast line.  The early tower mills were perfectly cylindrical in shape, used primitive sails, and usually could not be rotated into the wind.



The first European windmills are built among the English and French.  These primitive post mills were small, simple, fitted with paddle-like sails, and lacked any luffing or braking mechanisms. 


1200s to 1300s

Persians are invited to erect windmills for irrigation in China.



The first windmills for pumping water—hollow post “wip” mills—are used for land drainage in the Netherlands.



The Dutch perfect construction of the smock windmill and the Dutch sail, about 200 years before Smeaton proves it mathematically.  



Windmills arrive in America.  The English bring the first post mills to the Jamestown, VA settlement.  The Dutch bring windmills to their settlements in New Amsterdam (Manhattan Island, NY) and New England



Under Holland law, windmills are required to be named.



Edmund Lee invents the tail fan, which allows the wind to automatically luff the cap of a mill into the eye of the wind.  This invention is only popular in England, Germany, and Denmark.



English millwright John Smeaton publishes the results of his research, “An Experimental Inquiry concerning the Natural Powers of Water and Wind to turn Mills and other Machines depending on Circular Motion.” 


His findings led to important design changes in English mills and encourages some to build five, six, and eight-sail windmills.  He also concludes, however, that the steam engine is more capable of heavy industry than wind power.



English millwrights Mead, Rennie, and Hooper apply the centrifugal governor to automatically tenter the distance between grinding stones.



Sir Francis Beaufort created a wind scale based on its effects on the land, used by some millers in England.



The “patent sail” is conceived by English millwright William Cubitt, using a series of weights and pulleys to pivot shutters on windmill sails



The “Golden Age” of windmills in Holland: over 9,000 working windmills in the country.



Daniel Halladay of Connecticut patents the self-governing wind pump. 



The U. S. Wind Engine and Pump Company established in Batavia, IL



Many custom windmills are built in Illinois after the Civil War; Illinois is the center of wheat and corn production in the U.S.



Windmill manufacturing companies are operating all over the Midwest; wind engines can be ordered from a catalog and shipped directly to the customer.



Charles F. Brush uses a huge wind engine to power his home, making it the first successful wind-powered electric turbine.



Poul la Cour, a Danish meteorologist and teacher, constructs a traditional Danish windmill to produce electricity.



Only 2500 operating windmills are left in Holland. 



Poul la Cour forms the Society of Wind Electricians.



The Dutch Windmill Society is formed to preserve the remaining Dutch windmills, which were used in the absence of other energy sources during World War I.



Darrieus designs the first vertical-axis wind turbine, later nicknamed the “eggbeater” turbine.



Rear-Admiral Richard E. Byrd brings a Jacobs wind turbine to the Antarctic.



The world’s first 1 MW wind turbine is erected atop Grandpa’s Knob, Castleton, VT.



The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the U.S. Department of Energy work to create more efficient wind turbines. 



Oil embargos renew wind technology research.



A large, efficient 3.2 MW turbine, developed by Westinghouse Electric for the Department of Energy, is installed on the island of Oahu, Hawaii.



California takes a great lead in wind power after installing 6,870 wind turbines.



First offshore wind farms are constructed in Europe. 



Energy initiatives create wind farms across the United States and Europe, both on and offshore.



Mendota Hills wind farm is brought online; it is the first of its kind in Illinois.



Illinois Windmills website is launched.



The world’s largest and most efficient turbine, the Enercon E-126, is constructed in Germany at 7 Megawatts.

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