Windmills conjure up romantic images of sails slowly turning amongst fields of wheat, the fabric sails gently rustling in the soft breeze. Or of course there’s Don Quixote riding at them on his horse and his trusty sidekick Sancho Panza looking on in despair. Or of Dutch mice running up and down them in clogs. Whatever the image they’re faintly old-fashioned and reminiscent of a bygone age. Is there still a place for windmills in the 21st century?
Windmills have a long and illustrious history dating back to nearly 2000 years. The first design rotated in the horizontal plane; the vertical plane, which is the type we’re most used to seeing on our landscape originated in the 11th or 12 century in Europe and were used to grind corn. Later windmills were used to pump water, make paper or operate a woodsaw. During the industrial revolution in the 18th and 19th centuries steam, coal and then oil took the place of wind as a form of energy and windmills all but died out as a form of energy generation.
The principle of how windmills generate energy though has returned in the shape of the wind turbine. They use the same principle as windmills of old, i.e. converting wind energy into another form of energy, in this case electricity. The sails (blades) drive a turbine within the mast, and this generates electricity. These machines are a far cry from the traditional windmill though. The blades spin at around 33 miles per hour, they’re manufactured from hi-tech composite materials and they’re far larger. The traditional windmill, a wood or stone building with four slow turning sails wouldn’t be able to generate anywhere near electricity to justify its existence.
Following the industrial revolution many windmills fell into disrepair and were damaged beyond repair or destroyed. Today most windmills are maintained as historic buildings. But some of those which remain are starting to enjoy a renaissance and are being brought back to life as working windmills. For this we can thank the interest in organic and specialty food, specifically flour. Wheat milled on traditional millstones is claimed to produce a finer quality of flour to that produced by modern milling techniques, which use stainless steel rollers to crush the wheat to a very uniform size. It has been worth reopening some windmills to produce this high-grade product to satisfy the demand for more naturally produced flour.
It’s unlikely windmills will ever again dominate the landscape as they did two hundred years ago – their time has passed. But it is heartening to see that they still fulfill a function, albeit a specialized one. -MARK LEE