How windmills shaped the world

With the climate crisis accelerating, the importance of developing renewable energy sources to replace fossil fuels is increasingly apparent. Of the various options currently available one of the most widespread and visible is wind power. Wind turbines and wind farms are being built in countries across the world, and offshore, in ever greater numbers. The growing enthusiasm for wind power would come as no surprise to previous generations, who harnessed the wind’s energy for centuries up to and well into the Industrial Revolution.

The windmill has its origins in parts of eighth- or ninth-century Persia (modern-day Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan), where an early form of the technology was developed using horizontal wind-catching sails fitted on a vertical axis. These ‘panemone’ windmills were used in Central Asia, China, India, and some parts of southern Europe. The distinctive northern European version of the windmill, with vertical sails on a horizontal axis, was a later invention, coming into use around the 12th and 13th centuries in the lowlands of eastern England, Flanders and northern France.

The windmill underwent various changes over the years, evolving from a simple ‘post windmill’ structure, in which the sails and machinery are mounted to a single wooden post, to solid masonry towers and later the lighter ‘smock windmill’ which have a wooden framework covered with a tough surface such as thatch or board. A windmill’s sails turn as they catch the wind, converting its energy into rotational energy which can then be used to power mills, pump water, or even generate electricity (the first electricity-generating windmill was built as far back as 1887 by Professor James Blyth in Scotland).

Windmills were a vital technology for all manner of profitable industries, particularly in areas that didn’t have a fast-flowing supply of water to power watermills. They could be adapted to grind flour, chalk, paint, cocoa, to make paper, oil, or to cut timber, among other things. In the Netherlands, lightweight smock windmills were used to drain the wetlands for use in agriculture and development. Large parts of the region owed their existence to wind power: little wonder then that the windmill became an icon of Dutch art.

By 1850, some 200,000 windmills were in use across Europe, but soon their numbers began to dwindle. The invention of steam power and the internal combustion engine paved the way for the 20th century’s whole-hearted and ultimately damaging embrace of fossil fuels. But as long as the wind still blows the potential of the technology endures – something which is more important to remember now than ever.

We have hundreds of windmill watercolours on our database. They had a picturesque appeal for many painters, while others drew them to record their community’s way of life. Click here to see more windmills on The Watercolour World.