100 Greatest Science Inventions of All Time

By Kendall Haven | Go to book overview

Windmill
Year of Invention: 1280

What Is It? A device for harnessing wind power and turning it into mechanical
power.

Who Invented It? Unknown (in Belgium and Holland)


Why Is This Invention One of the 100 Greatest?

Windmills first replaced waterwheels as the primary means of grinding grain. Windmills next were used as water pumps in arid regions and to pump excess water out of flooded, low-lying regions. Windmills made large-scale settlement of, and agricultural development of, the American plains and West possible by pumping water to the surface from underground aquifers (bodies of water).

Finally, windmills have become an important renewable source of electric energy. Versatile, nonpolluting, and dependable, windmills have served as an important source of power for 1,000 years.


History of the Invention

What Did People Do Before?

Sailing ships were using wind power to drive their ships by 3,000 B.C. However, thousands of years passed before it occurred to anyone to harness the wind for other purposes.

Communities in Persia were the first to harness the wind on land. As early as A.D. 600, people there were mounting small sails of reed mats, woven palm fronds, and occasionally slats of wood onto vertical shafts extending through the roofs of buildings. The sails spun horizontally, turning the vertical shaft to provide grinding power below.

However, horizontal windmills don’t work well in places with variable or erratic winds and so they never spread into Africa or Europe.


How Was the Windmill Invented?

Around A.D. 1100, the “Mediterranean” windmill began to appear in Italy. Massive, two-story stone buildings were mounted with vertical sails set like a ship’s jib sail (front, triangular sail). These sails were turned at right angles to the wind so that the wind hit not the front, but the side or edge, of the pinwheel of sails. The sails connected to a vertical shaft that drove the mill grinding stone below.

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