Wind power has been around for thousands of years. Ever since ancient Civilizations realized that wind could power boats, they started to come up with some fantastic ideas on how to utilize that power. Head to Europe, and even some places in the US, and you will see countless remnants of old society’s need for wind power in the form of windmills. In fact, we still use the same tech today. Wind turbines are just massive windmills, but what were those old windmills used for?
Windmills have had a variety of uses over the centuries. However, they have mostly been used for water pumping and food production. Even today, you will find many places in the United States that rely on windmills to pump water around.
Let’s cover this in a bit more depth. This is because the tech behind windmills is fascinating and, if you enjoy wind turbines, then you will see how many of the old windmill concepts play a role in wind generation.
The Earliest History of Windmills
As we said, windmills have been used for an incredibly long time. While the first proper windmills didn’t start appearing until the 9th Century, there were indications about the sort of jobs that windmill power could tackle long before that.
For example, in the 17th Century BC, there were written plans for a complete irrigation system that would use windmills. Historians don’t know whether this was built, or whether it got beyond the design stages.
The first reference that we have of windmills potentially being used was in Ancient Greece around 60 AD. This machine, developed by Heron, played a pipe organ. So, not quite what we use wind power for nowadays, but it showed that the concept worked, and people were thinking about it. Again, we have no idea whether this was built. There are no surviving examples, but we do have detailed plans for it, and Heron was known for being one of the best engineers of his time, so it is likely that there was a working model at some point.
Now, let’s zip along to the 9th Century to Asia. We know that windmills were being used around this time, mostly in the Pakistan and Iran region (they weren’t called that back then!). These designs were not too different from modern wind turbine designs, just without all the electronics.
There were sails (i.e., the blades of the windmill), and these sails would drive a driveshaft that did a variety of jobs.
One of the major jobs of these early windmills was to help produce grain and sugar. It is fair to say that grinding anything is a labor-intensive job. Nobody wanted to do it. It would take far too long to grind up grain, which was a massive problem as these grains were a staple in diets back then. They still are, although we don't have to rely on wind power for that.
This meant that many of the earlier windmills were about grinding up grains, making flour, etc. Inside the windmill would be a long driveshaft (similar to modern wind turbines), driven by the wind. At the end was a grindstone. This grindstone would grind up the grain. It could easily accomplish in hours what may take an average person days.
Europeans used windmills for roughly the same purpose, although their windmill design was slightly different. They opted for vertical windmills as opposed to horizontal windmills. It is the vertical windmill design that is used nowadays for wind turbines. It is much better than the horizontal option for catching the wind, which means that it can drive power much more effectively.
You probably already knew that windmills were used to grind grains. It isn’t exactly a big secret, and anybody that has ever encountered a windmill will know that this is their purpose. However, did you know that older windmills were also used for pumping water and have been for centuries?
Windmill water pumps were often used to get water into the homes of the rich, or at least move water to a point where the common folk could easily get hold of water.
They were used extensively in the farming industry too. Remember earlier when we said that people came up with ideas for water irrigation systems almost three-thousand years ago? Well, we know that similar systems were being used from the 9th Century onwards. In fact, similar systems are being used to this day.
The Dutch also made extensive use of windmill water pumps too. Anybody that has ever heard about the Netherlands will know that the area is incredibly flat and very wet. If it weren’t for the efforts of the Dutch over the years, the area would likely be close to inhabitable. Old windmills were used to pump water out of lakes, rivers, etc. Some of the water would have been used for drinking, but a lot of the time, it was to stop areas from being flooded.
Are Windmills Still Used Today?
Surprisingly, yes. This is before we even consider the idea of wind turbines. Obviously, they are not used as extensively as they were before, but they are still being used.
Most old windmills have either been converted into housing (common around Europe) or just demolished. Some have been left as a memento of the past, mostly around Sweden and England, but this isn’t anywhere as common as you may think.
There are many places around the world where old windmills are being used for practical purposes. For example, there are locations in the United States that are not easily served by real water pumping, so they are using windmills to get water into their homes and around their land. The same happens in some parts of Africa and Asia.
Windmills aren’t used on grains quite so much nowadays. Most places have easy access to freshly ground grains. However, there are still some of these old windmills in operation and some companies pride themselves on grinding grain the old-school way.
While windmills are now used to generate electricity, they have centuries of history being used for food production and water pumping. If you are ever lucky enough to visit an old windmill, you will know that while the tech is basic, many of the same principles are now being used in wind turbines. Because, at the end of the day, a wind turbine is nothing more than just a couple of blades that drive a driveshaft. That’s all the old windmills were.