History Of Windmills

Windmills are very ancient machines

The earliest known example of what we would regard as a windmill is that created by Heron of Alexandria, a Greek engineer in the 1st Century AD.

Similarly the ancient Tibetans and Chinese are known to have used another type of wind driven wheel called a “Prayer Wheel”. It is believed that these types of windmill have been in use since the 4th Century.

However the earliest claimed use of a wind powered machine was that of the Babylonian emporer Hammurabi who is alleged to have planned the use of wind powered machines for an ambitious irrigation project in the 17th Century BC.

The illustration below shows an example of Herons wind powered organ.

Herons Wind Wheel 1st Century Windmill

Read more on Herons Windwheel at Wikipedia (Click here)

The first practical windmills were fitted with sails that rotated in the horizontal plane around a vertical axis. These were invented in Eastern Persia (What is now modern day Afghanistan). The Persian geographer Estakhri recorded these in the 9th Century AD.

There is a claim however that the second Caliph Umar (AD 634-644) was using a windmill in around the 7th century, however this is disputed due to the fact that this anecdote appears in a 10th century document.

A type of windmill with rectangular blades, believed to have been used for irrigation, is also found in 13th Century China during the Jurchen Jin Dynasty in the North. Apparently this design was introduced to the area known as Turkestan around 1219 through the travels of Yelü Chucai a prominent traveller and historian of the time.

These Persian windmills were generally constructed with six to twelve sails which would have been covered in matting made from reeds or cloth material. The predominant uses for these mills was the grinding of corn and drawing up of water. These mills differed much from the later European vertical windmills.

From these early wind machines the windmill evolved over the centuries and spread far and wide across the globe originally across the Middle East and Central Asia and then later into Chine and India and from there on to the rest of the world.

Windmills appear to have reached England in or around the 12th Century and its believed that the knowledge of these “wind engines” came back with the Crusaders, certainly there are ruins of windmills in Northern France that date from around that period.

In later centuries the Dutch seem to have become the “windmill experts” of Europe and many of the later windmills such as Fan-tails and the like are accredited to Dutch designers and engineers along with some truly innovative advancements in windmill sail technology.

Additionally the Dutch were excellent financiers and would often part fund windmill projects where the owner didn’t have enough funds to build the windmill. These financiers would of course have an “exit strategy” that would yield them a good financial return within a few years for part financing the project. This is where the term “Going Dutch”, referring to sharing the cost of a meal between all parties originates from.

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