Wind engines (also popularly known as American windmills) are those typically found on farms throughout the Midwest, Southwest, and West. Unlike custom windmills, wind engines are designed to self-regulate and keep their annular sails facing the wind, meaning they can operate without the presence of a miller. Some later designs were even equipped with self-oiling gearboxes to make them virtually maintenance-free.
Because of their reliability and ease of use, water-pumping wind engines quickly became popular in the nineteenth century for those settling the West and for railroad companies in need of refueling stations for steam locomotives. Wind engines were also the first wind machines in history to be mass-produced. In fact, the competitive market began a sort of “windmill war” between rival companies as they campaigned for business.
U.S. Wind Engine and Pump Company
Although Daniel Halladay developed a working wind engine in 1854, it was his business partner, John Burnham, who was his inspiration. Burnham worked to manufacture pumps he sold throughout New England, and it was during this time he conceived the idea of wind-powered water pumps like those so familiar in Holland. Understanding the difficulty in building and maintaining custom windmills, however, Burnham challenged Halladay to create a cheaper, simplified windmill that could operate without the regular attention of a miller.
Within a year of Burnham’s proposal, Halladay patented a wind engine that was somewhat based on the Dutch design: it had four sails upon a pivoting cap and was completely made of wood, but its tower was only a simple pole, its cap was self-governing via a tail vane, and it was designed exclusively for pumping well water. More importantly, a simple weight and pulley system controlled the pitch of the sails to harness more light winds or fewer strong winds.
Trying to sell windmills in the northeast was a futile task, especially in a region where steam engines and water-powered machines ruled. But after selling several to farmers and expanding railroad companies near Chicago, Halladay Wind Mill Company manufactured wind engines for Burnham’s U.S. Wind Engine and Pump Company in Chicago. Eventually, the two companies merged and moved their operation to Batavia, Illinois in 1863.
Around the end of the Civil War, the four-sailed wind engine was replaced by revolutionary pivoting annular sails. The wheel consisted of sections of thin wooden paddle sails that were hinged to adjust the mills’ speed in high winds. As T. Lindsay Baker wrote, it is “somewhat like the motion of opening and closing an umbrella” (see Wind Engine Operation).
The next great patent for wind engine development came from Beloit, WI. Reverend Leonard Wheeler and his son developed a different method for regulating windmills. After an experimental pumping windmill was destroyed in a storm, they created a new windmill with the ability to turn away from dangerously high winds. Like Halladay, the original engine had 4 paddle-shaped sails.
Rather than rely on pivoting sails or pivoting sectional wheels with governors, weights, and adjustment rods, they added a small second vane directly behind (and parallel to) the sails. This was designed turn the wheel away from dangerously high winds, akin to quartering the cap of a custom windmill. A spring or weighted pulley could then swing the wheel back into position when winds died down.
This led to the founding of the Eclipse Windmill Company, which later merged into Fairbanks, Morse & Company. Within a matter of years, they were Halladay’s biggest competitors. In the years following, their four-sailed engines were replaced by wooden solid wheels, later replaced by steel solid wheels.
American windmill sales surged after the Civil War. The Challenge Company, founded in 1857, and the Appleton Company, in 1872, both opened some of the largest wind engine manufacturing plants in Batavia, which soon became known as the “Windmill City.” J. S. Risdon of Genoa, Illinois filed a patent for the very first steel wind engine. The design was sold as the “Iron Turbine” by Mast, Foos & Company of Springfield, OH.
When steel windmills began replacing wooden ones, even more windmill manufacturing companies opened in Illinois. Thomas O. Perry, an engineer for Halladay, simplified the wind engine by redesigning the wind wheel. Later, he redesigned the gear box to be more efficient. Wind engines until this time were driven by the main wind shaft; Perry’s improved wind engine, however, transferred power to a second shaft through a gear that could pump water three times per wheel revolution. He and La Verne Noyes founded Aermotor in Chicago, which would become—and continues to be—the most successful wind engine company.
Other companies opened throughout Illinois, as well as in Michigan, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Texas. At the peak of their popularity, there were more than 77 windmill manufacturers in operation in 1888. Though not nearly as powerful as custom grist windmills, wind engines were also used to run grain elevators, carding equipment, corn shellers, wheat bolters, and conveyors.
It is important to note that modern wind turbines had their beginnings with wind engines. Both manufacturers and individuals experimented with wind engines to produce electricity. At that time, many found that the engines were not fast or powerful enough to sustain a generator; but a few, like Charles F. Brush, successfully operated a wind engine style turbine.
Several windmill companies closed during the Great Depression. More closed by the 1940s as windmills were replaced by electric and sewage utilities. Today, nearly all of the American windmill companies that still operate are located in the Southwest, where wind engines are primarily used by remote landowners to pump water or to aerate ponds.
Batavia is now known as the “City of Energy,” the new slogan reflecting the construction of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. The city’s logo features Fermilab’s administration building with an American windmill above it. Windmill models from the Batavia companies are on display at Riverwalk along the Fox River (just a mile or so south of the Fabyan Forest Preserve). The original Appleton Windmill factory was preserved and is now the Batavia’s Government Center.
Halladay's original wind engine patent.
Photo from Connecticut Humanities
Note the smaller weather vane under the main tail vane on this solid-wheel Eclipse model.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons