Tilting at windmills

The old-fashioned windmill is a thing of beauty symbolic of a lost past. Its modern equivalent provokes considerable sound and fury, yet it has a quixotic charm of its own.

The Greek mathematician and engineer Hero of Alexandria invented a windwheel that operated an organ. It may have been the first machine in history to harness wind power. Muslim geographers described vertical axle windmills in use in eastern Persia in the 9th century AD. Horizontal axle windmills of the type generally seen today were invented in North-western Europe in the 1180s.

The expression “tilting at windmills” originates in a famous scene from Miguel de Cervantes’ book Don Quixote de La Mancha. The episode occurs in the First Part, Chapter VIII, when Don Quixote catches sight of 30 or 40 windmills that he mistakes for enormous giants. When told by Sancho Panza that they are windmills, Don Quixote replies “It seems clear to me that thou art not well-versed in the matter of adventures: these are giants; and if thou art afraid, move aside and start to pray whilst I enter with them in fierce and unequal combat” (in the translation by Edith Grossman, 2004, p. 58).

The earliest type of European windmill was the post mill, so named because of the large upright post on which the mill’s main structure was balanced. This allowed the mill to rotate to face the wind direction. By the end of the 13th century, the masonry tower mill – only the cap of which is rotated rather than the whole body – had been invented. In Europe the spread of tower mills followed significant economic expansion that demanded larger and more stable sources of power.

The smock mill evolved from the tower mill, replacing the tower with a wooden framework called a “smock”, like the traditional field-labourer’s outer garment. Usually octagonal in shape, the smock is thatched, boarded or covered by slate, sheet metal, or tar paper. The lighter construction in comparison to tower mills makes smock mills practical as drainage mills and they were often built, as in Holland, on unstable ground.

At its peak the total number of wind-powered mills in Europe is estimated to have been around 200,000, compared to some 500,000 water-powered mills. There was a time when they were a prominent feature of every landscape. With the industrial revolution, wind and water as primary sources of energy began to be replaced by the internal combustion engine, although windmills continued to be built in large numbers until late in the 19th Century.

Today’s windmill is the wind turbine. It is older than we think. The first electricity generating wind turbine was a machine for charging batteries installed in July 1887 by Scottish academic James Blyth to light his holiday home. Some months later, in Cleveland, Ohio, American inventor Charles F Brush built the first automatic wind turbine for electricity production. The invention spread quickly and by the 1930s wind generators for electricity were commonplace on farms in the United States.

Of course, these were the homely variety, not the threatening Nephilim that appear to stride over land or water, although many people actually admire wind turbines, especially when they appear to have been choreographed into place over vast tracts of land or sea. A large wind farm may consist of several hundred individual wind turbines and cover an extended area of hundreds of square miles.

In 2011 construction began on the world’s largest offshore wind farm, the “London Array”. It is being built 12 miles off of the Kent coast and will include 175 wind turbines. There are dogmatic views on the subject pro and con, with none more outspoken than Prince Charles who views wind farms as a “horrendous blot on the landscape”. However, being ecologically friendly, he doesn’t mind if they are all at sea.

Harnessing sun and wind to create energy makes good sense. Wind turbines may evoke giants striding across the landscape, provoking knights errant to tilt at windmills, but, as the proverb reminds us, “The wind bloweth where it listeth” – so we might as well make best use of it!

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3 comments on “Tilting at windmills

  1. Randy Naylor says:

    Growing up in rural Alberta (many years ago now!) I recall that many of the farms and ranches still used windmills to pump water for cattle in remote parts of the pasture land. I re-visited one of these ranches this past summer and was pleased to see that the water was still being pumped–although the rancher had installed a local solar powwer generator which ran the now electric pump. Both systems had essentially zero negative impact on the environment.

  2. ptrl1952 says:

    Interestingly – and not unexpectedly – there are new designs for increasing output. One is a spectacular Japanese invention. See: http://www.geekosystem.com/japanese-wind-power/

  3. Two years ago driving through southern Sweden I saw a number of wind mills pumping water. It reminded me of Holland.

    George in Berkeley

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