How Windmill Power Works

Whenever wind power is mentioned these days, people tend to hear “wind-generated electricity”. This is a part of the lazification of English, similar to the habit of saying “alloy” when they mean “aluminium”. It is also an effect of the great electricity fetish of the past century, the widely held view that no form of energy has any practical domestic or industrial application unless it is converted to electricity.

Say “Industrial revolution” and people close their eyes and think of England between 1750 and 1850, squalid and overcrowded cities and an atmosphere consisting mainly of coal smoke. That was an industrial revolution, but it was not the only industrial revolution. There was a much earlier one, which started in the fourth century in what is now Germany when Romans began to use water mills to drive stone-cutting saws.

The Dutch industrial revolution began in 1594 in Alkmaar. Cornelis Corneliszoon built a wind-powered sawmill in anticipation of a high demand for sawn timber to build the ships the republic would need now that it had taken control of what is now Indonesia. Encouraged by the success of this mill, he decided to build another one, in Amsterdam. Finding that the Guild of (hand)Sawyers had a lot of influence in that city, he built it in the village of Zaandam, on the eastern bank of the Zaan River. The Zaan was a young river, a product of eleventh-century reclamation work which had blocked the earlier drainage of a lake to the north. It was (and is) wide, slow-moving and a tributary of the Ij River which flowed to the Zuider Zee via Amsterdam, but which now flows in the opposite direction as the Nordzee Canal. The Zaanstreek was the ideal place to build wind-driven factories. It was flat, spacious, exposed and thinly populated, and away from guild influence. Within thirty years Zaandam had more than fifty windmills, mostly sawmills but with a growing number of mills producing vegetable oils, peeled barley, hemp fibre and paint pigment. In later years, paper and cloth-fulling mills (known familiarly as “stinkmolens” arrived. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, Zaandam was Holland’s main industrial centre, and predominantly wind-driven. The mills operated whenever the wind blew strongly enough, day and night.

Note that most of this happened before the domestication of lightning gave us electricity. Direct exploitation of the wind is simple, efficient and practical. It does not need electricity except peripherally (for lighting, cash registers, telephones and computers etc). However, it is not compatible with uniform working hours or easily calculated production projections. On the other hand, it doesn’t lead to every hig ridge being covered with turbines, or unsightly transmission lines traversing the landscape, or the losses caused by some of the electricity falling out of the wires in transit. It does not have the environmental footprint of the many tons of copper, steel, aluminium, porcelain and zinc needed for the transmission of electricity.

So, when you hear wind power mentioned, remember that it does not have to involve electricity.