The Development of Windmills

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The Development of Windmills


Windmills provided medieval society with a reliable source of energy that helped initiate a thirteenth-century Industrial Revolution. This device also helped create a mechanical view of reality that would dominate the West for centuries and eventually lead to the onset of the Scientific Revolution.


From man's earliest days, energy has been a fundamental necessity for human existence. The adoption of fire by our ancestors enabled them to survive in northern sections of the Eurasian landmass during the last Ice Age. Fire was humankind's first inanimate source of energy. The heat and light that it generated allowed the first Homo sapiens to increase their protein intake by providing the opportunity to cook meat. It also kept them warm during the winter months, which extended the life expectancy of both infants and the aged. Finally, this new source of energy added to human safety by increasing the visual capacity of humans at night.

The transfer of collective knowledge, by which the solution to one problem is used to facilitate the answer to another, is an important human characteristic. Over time, early humans discovered that they could increase the strength of their wooden implements by using burning embers to harden the tips of their tools and weapons. Stronger digging sticks, in turn, increased the success rate of those who foraged for roots and tubers, and the same held true for weapons used in hunting and warfare. These tools extended human productivity by increasing the successful application of human energy.

The next energy revolution was part of a larger Agricultural Revolution that precipitated the emergence of civilizations. Humans were able to harness the energy of both rivers and animals to create an agricultural surplus for the first time in history. This was the result of the successful interaction among humans, animals, and the natural environment. The use of draft animals to pull heavy plows increased the harvest of domesticated plants. This new source of energy allowed the first farmers to bring large amounts of fertile land under cultivation. Over time, stronger hybrid plants were developed, and in a very basic way these early farmers helped direct the evolutionary process of the first agricultural species.

The application of energy also had a negative impact on the environment. Historians and scientists alike have concluded that humans were so successful at manipulating the environment that soil depletion became a major problem. This accelerated the process of desertification.

In time, technology would also increase the effectiveness of energy resources. The invention of boats and barges harnessed the energy of rivers for transportation. This had an important impact on the growth of human society. River energy allowed for greater transportation, communication, and trade. Along with material goods, ideas about religion, government, and information concerning new technology were made available to a greater number of people. Social scientists refer to this process as "cultural diffusion" and "technology transfer." From the very beginning of civilization trade and ideas moved in a very systematic way from society to society, and increases in energy accelerated that movement.

As the ancient Mediterranean world entered the classical period, there were additional improvements in the use of energy. Long range intracontinental trade became a basic feature of this time. In ancient Greece, the Athenian navy rose to military dominance based upon the extension of human energy. The successful development of a naval vessel called the "trireme" allowed Athenians to dominate the important waterways of the classical world. The trireme was both fast and maneuverable. Its energy source consisted of 170 oarsmen, who increased the speed of the ship to such an extent that it quickly became the fastest vessel afloat.

The Roman Empire did not favor alternative energy sources. Roman mills, which were primarily used for grinding grain, utilized animal or human power. As the empire expanded, the number of slaves in Roman society increased. This severely limited the incentive to find an alternative energy source and helped create an anti-technology mindset among Rome's leaders. In time, it became an accepted belief that mechanization would actually disrupt society because it would reduce the size of the labor force, and thousands of permanently unemployed workers would pose a constant threat of rioting and political unrest.


The fall of Rome and the onset of the European Middle Ages accelerated the search for alternative energy sources. Europe actually experienced a short Industrial Revolution in the thirteenth century. This occurred because technology helped bring about a revolution in energy. The windmill was the first successful attempt to harness the power of inanimate energy. Over time, improvements were made that allowed the top of the mill to be rotated in the direction of the wind, so as to take full advantage of this new source of energy. The rotating windmill became a powerful motor, creating the equivalent of 20 to 30 horsepower. This was a turning point in the production of power. It became the first reliable inanimate source of energy. It also helped to undermine the traditional classical view that all energy had to come from animals or humans. The first windmills were used for irrigation and grinding grain. Eventually they would power the medieval textile industry.

The first important "spin off" of the new development in wind power was in marine engineering. The construction of the caravel, which would be the primary vessel of European expansion, centered upon the harnessing of wind power through the invention of the lateen or triangular sail. Not unlike the concept of rotating the top of the windmill, the new rigging allowed sailors to rotate the sail in the direction of the wind. This new technological advancement had a profound economic effect on Europe. Captains no longer had to wait for the most favorable winds. This helped decrease the time of the voyages, which in turn reduced the cost. Productivity was also increased because more wind could be harnessed and thus the size of the ships could be increased; this had a positive impact on the amount of cargo that could be carried.

The first nation to take advantage of this new technology was Portugal. Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) created a research institute at Sagres, where he brought in experts in cartography, marine engineering, and geography to study and research new methods of navigation. His experts combined the new wind energy of the of the triangular sail with the power and accuracy of newly developed ship cannons to become the dominate power on the high seas by the 1440s. The orientation toward wind power focused some of Henry's experts on studying the major wind patterns of the Atlantic Ocean. This knowledge allowed Portuguese sea captains to explore the African coast in greater detail and, at the same time, shorten their voyages to an even greater extent because they knew where to pick up the prevailing westerly winds that would propel them quickly back to Portugal. The financial impact of wind energy on fifteenth-century Portugal was impressive. The greater time spent moving up and down the African coast increased the nation's wealth from trade in slaves and gold. This dominance eventually spread to the Indian Ocean trading complex. In little over half a century the Portuguese took control of all the vital ports, harbors, and choke points in this extensive trading network. Without the advances in wind power the Portuguese would have been unable to acquire this transoceanic dominance.

The windmill also brought about significant changes in European economic and intellectual life. The effectiveness of the windmill increased a second time with the adoption of a horizontal axis. This allowed the energy created by the mill to be directed to the production of many important products. For the first time in history, machines were used to mass-produce paper, and inexpensive paper increased the flow of information throughout Western Europe. This medieval paper industry helped create the groundwork for the concept of mass production. It also initiated a passion for mechanization. Extensive advances in productivity showed that machines could increase the standard of living for all people, and this helped to create a mechanical worldview. Eventually the idea that the universe could be described as a large machine would come to dominate the Western mind.

Natural philosophers began to accept that this mechanized universe was controlled by certain laws of nature. These laws could be discovered through the exercise of human reason, and the knowledge found within them could be applied to the benefit of the human community. This created the perception that all of the problems facing humanity could be solved and that, in fact, knowledge was power. This concept, in turn, contributed to the idea of progress, the belief that life in all its dimensions would become more favorable with each passing generation. People would no longer have to suffer from disease, starvation, nor all the other problems that traditionally plagued humankind. These problems could be overcome by properly studying their characteristics and their interaction with the environment.

As time went on, the success of the windmill would set the example for future advancement in developing sources of inanimate energy. This pursuit of energy would coincide with continued developments in mechanization and mass production. By the eighteenth century, Europe would begin history's second great increase in material productivity, the Industrial Revolution.


Further Reading

Cipolla, Carlo M. Guns, Sails, and Empires: Technological Innovation and the Early Phases of European Expansion, 1400-1700. New York: Pantheon Books, 1965.

Duby, Georges. Rural Economy and Country Life in the Medieval West. Translated by Cynthia Postan. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

Powers, Eileen. Medieval People. New York: Harper Perennial, 1997.


The Development of Windmills