History of Windmills: Part 1


The history of windmills has a very rich background and diversified literature and its history can be traced back to multiple countries spread across different continents of the world. Windmills have been used for a very very long time since our ancestors learned about harnessing the power of the wind.

Harnessing the power of wind has been in use long before the arrival of windmills. During the time of Pharaohs, they used sails to navigate the Nile river. While they did not much know about the aerodynamics or characteristics of sails, they used them effectively for navigation.

It is believed that windmills have been in use for human needs well before recorded history but we will focus more on the periods where we have some evidence from technical drawings and through other literature sources where we can see what these devices were.

History of Windmills Time Periods

The history of Windmills and their technological development can be traced back to two significant time periods

  1. Ancient History 200 BC – 1100 AD
  2. Medieval History 1100 AD – 1800 AD

We will discuss the history of windmills in a series of two parts. In the first part, we will discuss the ancient history of windmills mostly predominant in the Islamic world, and in the 2nd part, we will discuss the medieval history of windmills in Europe and North America.

The idea that never realized

The conception of the idea to use wind power through windmills first comes from the ruler of Babylon’s ancient city, Hammurabi, which dates back to the 1700s BC. He wanted to create a network of windmills that automates the watering of agricultural land. But His idea was never realized nor did the historian found any solid evidence that he made any progress on his plan.

An artistic photo of Hammurabi ancient ruler of Babylon

First Wind-Powered Device

It was the first, Greek Engineer, Heron of Alexandria, who built a wind-driven wheel to power his musical instrument in 1st AD. This musical instrument had actually rotor blades that spin around a horizontal axis.

This is also the first recorded history where we have a sketch of the wind-powered device.

The first wind-driven musical instrument was built by a greek engineer

Islamic Windmills History

The ancient history of windmills in the Islamic world originates from the Persian land, a border area between Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. They were the pioneer in building windmills for being used in grinding grains and pumping water.

These windmills had blades that spun across a vertical axis and works on the drag-driven principle(wind directly flows onto the blades and creates resistance which in turn rotates the blades). They were also called panemones because they don’t care about the direction of an incoming wind. Their design was quite simple mechanically and common materials like wood and sails were used in their construction.

Historical Persian Windmill sketch
Persian Historic Windmill in Sistan province of Iran

Sail Windmills

These windmills had sails in their blade that takes the form of an airfoil structure producing lift when the wind flows over them. So, Sails windmills were lift-driven machines. and they had both horizontal and vertical axis sail-type windmills.

They got the idea of sail windmills from the sailing boats which have been there long before windmills. This was a natural evolution from the sail’s navigation that people used to use at the same time.

Horizontal axis sail type windmill
Vertical axis sail type windmill

In sail-type windmills, aerodynamics played a significant role. although they had no direct knowledge of aerodynamics they were practicing it naturally.

Originating from Persian land, these windmills became popular and spread all over the Islamic world and neighboring countries like India and China. Because of their simplicity, they were common in use everywhere and went on up to the eighth or ninth century A.D.

The Islamic world had these machines in use for quite a long time but Europe did not have an idea of windmills at that time except for Vikings who used sails to navigate their waterways.

The crusaders who were returning from war in the middle east brought the knowledge of windmills to Europe around the 10th century A.D. This was a time when the technological development of windmills took a sudden jump and wind energy development simultaneously began to happen in many parts of Europe.

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