Down Memory Lane: Harnessing The Wind Energy

Last updated on July 13, 2020

Windmills are just not last 100 years of invention and development, but also in ancient era, the earliest civilizations tried harnessing the wind.

The wind as source of power, did not go unnoticed by our ancestors who first devised sails even as far back as 6000 years ago. The first sailing ships made their first journeys round 3,500 BC and the use of wind power in ancient civilizations started being more and more common as centuries went by.

During 2nd BC, the Babylonian rulers were first to start planning

to harness wind to power windmills that could route water from one place to another. Their plans were not realized, and first confirmed device that used wind to power a mechanical machine was devised in 1st century AD by greek engineer Heron of Alexandria. He used simple windmill wheel to catch force of wind and power a musical instrument.

The onset of first wind-powered machine however did not immediately mark the start of the windmills era. While sailing ships continued to evolve and be more efficient in converting wind into movement, windmills took a slower approach.

The first truly reliable windmill design arrived between 7th and 9th century in the regions between modern Afghanistan and Iran. The windmills then subsequently started to be built all around the Muslim world, and they reached India and China before first models arrived to Europe. The early windmill designs featured with varied usage that involved all the “traditional” jobs of grinding grain and transferring water for irrigation and salt production and water pumping from deep wells.

Between 11th and 16th century, Europe started to take much more serious approach on harnessing power from wind. Windmills become integral machines that powered various industries in several European countries. Regions of England and Central Europe used around 100 thousand windmills for countless jobs. During the same time, the art of sailing became much more advanced with the discovery of navigational tools.

During the 15th century, Europe entered into the Age of Discovery, powered almost solely with wind power. Ships from Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, Netherlands and England sailed all across the world, discovering Americas, water route to India, Australia, Pacific Ocean, and many newer trade routes. Wherever new settlers landed, they brought with them not only supplies needed for making of new settlements, but also knowledge how to harness the power of wind.

After 16th century, windmills of all shapes and types were being made all around the world. By 19th century steam and electricity.

started being dominant source of power for industry. After proliferation of electricity and internal combustion engines, the need for wind powered machines reduced dramatically all around the world, but some wind-powered machines never became obsolete, like water pumps powered by wind are extremely self-sufficient, requiring small amount of wind to start drag water from deep wells, and requires very little maintenance. Similarly, wind turbines that create electricity became much more attractive after it became apparent that oil prices will become more and more expensive after 1970s.

Types of Windmills that Evolved over the Ages

Horizontal windmills – Very rarely used type of windmills in which fan that is collecting the wind is placed horizontally. It was discovered that this type of windmill was oldest and created in Eastern Persia between 7th and 8th century AD.

Vertical windmills – Most popular type of windmills that were used used both in Middle East around 8th -9th century and in Europe around 12th century. Most systematized period of windmill usage happened between 18th and 19th century, when windmills were used for much wider array of industrial jobs, even cutting wood and stopped being used only for grinding grains or moving water.

Different kinds of Windmills

The different kind of windmill developed over a centuries accounted for more than 200,000 mills in Europe, while United States used over 600,000 thousand of wind-powered water pumps in 1930.Windmills were created in three most basic shapes:-

Post Mills that had fixed sail wheel that could not rotate. Post windmill in their most basic form are made by mounting windmill wheel on the large post that can be made in many shapes, with machinery for the milling being placed either directly behind spinning wheel or at the floor of the mill. After their introduction and popularization, the most fertile period for Post windmills happened in 18th and 19th century, after which usefulness of all windmills plummeted with the arrival of steam-powered industry.

Tower Mills. With arrival of first windmills in Europe which were most created from wood, their designers started devising plans for creating more durable structures that would not be limited by the fixed position of the windmill sail wheel. Tower Windmills were built from stone or bricks and had rotating wooden cap that could rotate and take advantage from wind that changes direction and which could rotate and catch more wind as needed. These changes gave tower mills a significant advantage over simpler post mills, which were smaller, unreliable in stormy conditions, could not move the position of the sails, and could not house large and heavy sails. Today the tallest tower windmills across the world are 30m tall “Moulton Windmill” in England and 33.5- 42.5-meter-tall “De Nolet” windmills in Netherlands

Smock Mills. After arrival of tower mills which managed to remove some inefficiencies of early models of post mills, engineers from all around the Europe started working on to create wooden windmills that are more sturdy, able to have rotating cap that can be moved in changeable wind conditions, and are most importantly, much cheaper to be made than tall stone or brick mills. The engineers developing the smock mills chose to add more structural strength to the wooden mills by turning them into sloping towers with six or eight sides. This enabled smock mills to be much more resistant to strong winds, and because their vastly reduced weight, they could be easily built on more wet terrains that would not be able to support tower mills.

First Smock mill built in England was dated to the year 1650 and is located in Lacey Green, Buckinghamshire. It’s not the original one, but restored in recent years. In USA, the oldest known Smock mill was built in 1764 on Nantucket Island, Massachusetts. After several restorations, this mill is still operational and is a tourist attraction.

Archived Facts on Windmills

The oldest windmill is in the Netherlands, dates back to the eight century. Some signs point that Persians had them in 5th century AD. Largest historic windmills in the world are located in the Netherlands, near the town of Schiedam. During peak of windmill popularity in 18th and 19th century, Europe housed around 200 thousand of these. Earliest mills were not only made to process grain, but were also used as automated stations that could route water from flooded areas or pump water from the depths for irrigation. Dutch mills were famous for that use.

Early windmills used fan shaped objects made from wood. Today’s windmills are made using metal or other modern composite material. World’s largest wind turbine is 20 stories high and has rotors that has a length of entire football field. It is built and stationed in Hawaii.

Before the appearance of steam-powered machines, windmills represented the only machines that could reliably be used for manufacture of many materials. One area of Netherlands had over 600 mills that were used for creation of paper, paint, gin, mustard, oil, cut wood and more.

In mid-19th century, with arrival of mass produced steam power, started the decline of windmills. However they remained in use even until today. In early 20th century, windmills were optimized to take advantage of wind power more efficiently. They could reach the output of around 100 horsepower. The first windmill manufactured in the United States was designed by Daniel Halladay, who began inventing windmills in 1854 in his Connecticut machine shop.

The first electricity-generating wind turbine was invented in 1888 in Cleveland, Ohio by Charles F. Brush. The turbine’s diameter was 17 meters (50 feet), it had 144 rotor blades made of cedar wood, and it generated about 12 kilowatts (kW) of power. Modern windmills are mostly used to convert wind energy into electricity. The entire industry for managing electric windmill turbines has grown much in popularity in late 20th century. One megawatt of wind energy can prevent creation of 2,600 tons of Carbon Dioxide that is made by fossil-powered engines.

• The popularity of wind power turbines quadrupled between the years 2000 and 2006.

• Today, there are approximately 1000 and 1150 windmills in Holland. Some are these are still actively used to grind grain or water drainage.

• Holland celebrates “National Mills Day” every second Saturday in the month of May.

• Modern wind turbine is a complicated machine with over 8000 parts.

• Average size of wind turbine rotor has reached the diameter of 97 meters.

• Country that has most wind turbines is not USA, but it is China.

• 20% of the energy production in Portugal and Denmark comes from wind turbines.

• There are more than 45,100 active wind turbines across the world.

• The strongest windmill operating at its peak speed can power up to 500 homes.

• Total installed wind power in India is the fourth largest installed wind power capacity in the world after Germany, Spain and USA.

• Estimated potential in India is around 45000 MW at 50 m above ground level.