History Matters: Wonderful Windmills

By David A. Fryxell Premium

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It’s unlikely our ancestors could have settled the parched Great Plains or water-starved places such as the Southwest without windmills. The American windmill, also known as a wind engine or wind pump, brought water from the ground where otherwise there was none. Not only thirsty farms but railroads, too, relied on wind power in areas enjoying more wind than water. At the peak of the “windmill wars” in 1928, competing American manufacturers cranked out 99,050 wind engines—the first mass-produced wind-power devices in history. Over the years, Americans have installed some 6 million mechanical-output wind machines, with Texas deploying the most.

Next year marks the 150th anniversary of the practical start of the windmilling of America. Connecticut inventor Daniel Halladay had developed a working wind engine as early as 1854, but found little market for it in water-rich New England. His partner, John Burnham, challenged Halladay to perfect a cheaper, simpler windmill that could operate without regular tending by a “miller.” The result was a four-sail, pivoting wind engine with a tail vane that automatically turned it into the wind. Halladay and Burnham moved their operations to Batavia, Ill., closer to potential western customers, and began operation as the US Wind Engine and Pump Co. in 1863.

The Windmill’s Humble Origins

Windmills, of course, have been around for centuries, although early versions were different from the simple structures that populated America’s prairies. The Greek engineer Heron of Alexandria designed a wind-driven music organ in the first century. The Persians built the first practical windmills sometime between 500 and 900, using the vertical-axis engines (spinning like a merry-go-round, as opposed to the now-familiar horizontal-axis design) to pump water and grind grain.

It’s a matter of debate whether windmills in Western Europe were inspired by these early models or developed independently. The earliest English windmills were “postmill” structures, in which the entire mill—sails and grinding house—turned to face the wind. By about 1390, the Dutch improved on this design with the tower mill, in which only the top floor moved with the wind, and the smock mill, named for its distinctive apron-shaped sides. These enabled larger mills with lower floors for grinding and storing grain, as well as living quarters for the windsmith and his family. More aerodynamic sails improved efficiency, beginning a series of incremental improvements that would take another 500 years to perfect.

 As wind-power historian Darrell M. Dodge puts it, “These mills were the ‘electrical motor’ of pre-industrial Europe. Applications were diverse, ranging from the common waterwell, irrigation, or drainage pumping using a scoop wheel, grain-grinding, saw-milling of timber, and the processing of other commodities such as spices, cocoa, paints and dyes, and tobacco.”

Halladay’s design and competitors such as the Eclipse windmill—an 1867 invention of Rev. Leonard H. Wheeler, a missionary among the Ojibway tribe—were different from the iconic Dutch windmills of landscape paintings. American windmills were small, one horsepower or less, and sat atop a simple stand rather than a mill building. After the 1870 development of more efficient curved steel blades, windmills became as common on the prairie as tumbleweeds.

Barbed wire also spurred the spread of windmills by fencing off the range and limiting access to surface water. Drillers followed the fence crews, guessed at the location of water, and used horse-powered rigs to bore wells. Range riders visited windmills twice a week to grease the works with lubricant kept in a can or beer bottle tied to the saddle. Self-lubricating designs, introduced with the Wonder Model A from the Elgin Wind Power and Pump Co. in 1912, eliminated this chore; similar to the lubrication of car engines, the moving parts in a self-lubricating mill operated in a “bath” of oil.

But the prairie windmill couldn’t survive rural electrification. In the 1930s, as technology grew and wires spread across America, windmills were put out of work. The last census of windmill manufacturers, taken in 1963, counted only 7,562 units sold in the whole country (3,000 of them in Texas).

The Power of the Wind

Could wind power deliver electricity as well as water? Scottish Professor James Blyth began experiments with wind turbines in 1887, succeeding in powering his Glasgow home for 25 years. The first large-scale attempt to harness 
the wind for electrical power was a 164-foot diameter, 144-blade rotor Charles F. Brush built in Cleveland in 1888. It operated successfully for 20 years, generating a modest 12 kilowatts of energy at its peak.

In 1891, Danish scientist Poul La Cour adapted the aerodynamic principles used in the most efficient European tower mills to generate electricity. Capable of producing 25 kilowatts, these four-blade airfoil wind generators spread throughout Denmark in the early 20th century—until big fossil-fueled steam plants put them out of business.

Rural areas of the United States also adapted the familiar wind technology to generate power for lighting and crystal radios. In the 1920s, companies including Parris-Dunn and Jacobs Wind Electric sold one- to three-kilowatt wind generators throughout the Midwest.

As the electric grid covered the Western world, wind power development shifted from small-scale designs to “bulk” electrical generation. In 1931, the Soviets built the 100,000-kilowatt Balaclava wind generator by the Caspian Sea. Americans gave it a try with the 1.25 megawatt Smith-Putnam machine built in 1941; its two blades spanned 175 feet and the stainless-steel rotor weighed 16 tons. But after only a few hundred hours of operation, a blade broke near the hub—apparently due to metal fatigue from the heavy load generated in a structure, according to historian Dodge, “that had a lot in common with a gigantic rotating Erector set.”

Such fits and starts continued to characterize wind power generation. The first “wind farm” wasn’t constructed until 1980 in New Hampshire—and it failed due to inadequate wind and unreliable turbines. But as the world looks for alternate energy sources that don’t contribute to global warming, electricity from the wind may finally have its moment. Even as the windmills that once dotted the American prairie become quaint curiosities, soaring new wind turbines are beginning to provide the very electricity that made rural windmills mostly obsolete. Five US states—South Dakota, Iowa, North Dakota, Minnesota and Wyoming—now produce 10 percent or more of their electricity from wind, and the US Department of Energy says wind could generate 20 percent of all America’s electricity by 2030.

After 2,000 years of tinkering, the answer may at last be blowin’ in the wind.

Fun Facts About Windmills

  • More than a thousand factories have produced windmills in the United States. Many were small operations that failed after the first windstorm revealed the flaws in their designs.
  • Henry Ford was inspired to create the automobile assembly line in part by a childhood visit to a windmill factory, which could turn out a complete windmill every three minutes.
  • Early windmills used sails made of cloth, much like ships. In cold climates, wooden slats, which proved easier to handle in freezing conditions, replaced cloth sails.

Timeline of the Windmill

  • 500-900 | Persians develop first windmills for grinding grain and pumping water
  • 1219 | China builds its earliest documented windmill
  • 1854 | Daniel Halladay develops a working wind engine
  • 1863 | US Wind Engine and Pump Co. begins operations in Batavia, Ill.
  • 1888 | Charles F. Brush completes his 12-kilowatt wind turbine
  • 1903 | Poul la Cour founds the Society of Wind Electricians
  • 1931 | France’s George Darrieus patents the the “eggbeater windmill
  • 1973 | Arab oil embargo leads to US Federal Wind Energy Program
  • 1980 | World’s first wind farm is installed in New Hampshire

From the October/November 2012 issue of Family Tree Magazine.