Brief History of Windmills in the New World
T. Lindsay Baker
Early immigrants to the Western Hemisphere brought
with them the technology of windmills which had developed in the
Old World. Windmills of this type had the same basic design of
windmills used in England and on the continent of Europe.
These wind machines typically had four large blades
which powered wooden components which converted rotary motion
of the wheels into usable power for human work. They most often
operated grist mills for grinding grain into meal or flour. Although
the European-style windmills served valuable roles, they were
expensive to build and required constant human attention.
Windmills which developed in North America were
quite different in design and appearance.
Daniel Halladay in 1854 is credited with having designed the first
commercially successful new windmill in the New World. His windmill
had a self-governing design. This means that it automatically
turned to face changing wind directions and that it automatically
controlled its own speed of operation.
Halladay's initial wind machine had four wooden
blades which swiveled to provide varying pitch in order to regulate
operating speed. Later he devised wheels comprised of "sections"
of thin wooden blades which could pivot in order to control surface
exposed to the wind and thus regulate wheel speed. Windmills of
this design were called sectional wheel windmills.
Halladay invented his first successful self-governing
windmill in Connecticut, U.S.A., and his company manufactured
them there from 1854 to 1863. Delays in production and shipping,
some caused by the American Civil War, prompted him to relocate
the factory to Batavia, Illinois. There, in the Fox River Valley
just west of Chicago in the American Midwest, his company thrived.
It sold its Halladay Standard windmills by the thousands to farmers
and ranchers on the plains and prairies of North America as well
as farther afield.
The earliest major competitor for Daniel Halladay's
pioneer windmills were the Eclipse windmills invented by 1867
by the Reverend Leonard H. Wheeler. A missionary among the Ojibway
Indians of Wisconsin, Wheeler and his son devised a windmill for
use at their mission station. Instead of having a wheel comprised
of pivoting sections, their wind machine had a "solid" wheel in
which the wheel components were rigidly fastened together.
The Wheelers attached their wheel to a hinged vane (or tail),
which like a weather vane kept the wheel pointed into the wind
when it was operating. Their mill had a second, smaller vane attached
parallel with the wheel. This side or governor vane pushed the
wheel out of increasing wind velocities to regulate its speed
of operation. Other contemporary mills achieved the same end by
placing their wind wheel just off center. The Wheelers used a
weight on the end of a lever connected with the vane to "pull"
the wheel back to face the wind when its velocity subsided. All
mills of this design were called solid wheel windmills.
Up to this time, all windmills in North America
were built from wood, with some iron and steel parts holding the
wooden components together. As early as the 1870s, however, all-metal
windmills were introduced, but at first they were not especially
popular. People believed that they were easily broken and difficult
to repair. In time, however, the use of steel and iron for windmills
increased so that by the beginning of the twentieth century the
majority of windmills built were made from metal.
The use of metal allowed windmill manufacturers to create wind
wheels containing curved blades. Curved blades were much more
efficient that the older-style thin, flat wooden blades. The use
of curved blades also permitted introduction of back-gearing to
windmills. Back-geared windmills typically had wheels which revolved
two or three times for each stroke of a pump, and this allowed
the steel windmills to begin turning in much lighter winds than
were necessary for the less efficient wooden-wheel mills. By the
1940s, iron and steel had completely supplanted wood as a construction
material for windmills as manufactured in North America.
Perhaps the most important technological innovation
in water-pumping windmills during the twentieth century was the
introduction of oil-bath or self-lubricating designs. In these
windmills the main casting doubled as an oil reservoir. The moving
parts of the mills operated in this bath of oil in a manner similar
to the operation of parts in an automobile engine lubricated by
oil from the crankcase. The first widely sold oil-bath windmill
in North America was the Wonder Model A made by the Elgin Wind
Power and Pump Company of Elgin, Illinois, about 1912. Within
a decade virtually every windmill company in North America had
begun offering its customers oil-bath-style windmills.
The windmill industry in North America remained
very active into the 1930s. During this decade the combination
of major economic depression with introduction of electricity
(and electric water pumps) to rural areas began a slow decline
from which the windmill industry in North America never fully
recovered. Gradually windmill manufacturers either shifted major
production to other products or saw their share of the market
for water supply goods shrink and shrink. Today a handful of companies
continue to market high-quality new water-pumping windmills, while
hundreds of individuals throughout the continent earn their livelihoods
by repairing and maintaining older water pumpers still in the
field. Some of these firms and individuals advertise in the Windmillers'
Several companies continue the manufacture of windmills
in the United States. These firms include the Aermotor Windmill
Company, Inc., San Angelo, Texas; Dempster Industries, Inc., Beatrice,
Nebraska; Muller Industries, Inc., Yankton, South Dakota; and
KMP Pump Company, Earth, Texas. The American West Windmill Company,
Amarillo, Texas, imports and distributes mills made in Argentina,
Second Wind Windmill Service, Ft. Worth, Texas, imports and sells
mills made in Mexico, while O'Brock Windmill Distributors in North
Benton, Ohio, import and sell mills made in South Africa.
Several museums contain important collections of
historic windmills and related artifacts. The largest of the windmill
museums is the American Wind
Power Center in Lubbock, Texas, but just behind it in size
comes the Mid-America
Windmill Museum in Kendallville, Indiana. The Canadian
National Wind Power Center in Etzikom, Alberta, interprets
the history of wind power in Canada. Of much interest are the
Windmill Museum in Shattuck, Oklahoma, the Windmill
State Wayside near Gibbon, Nebraska, and the Spearman
Windmill Park in Spearman, Texas. In South Africa the Fred
Turner Museum in Loeriesfontein contains an important open-air
display of water-pumping windmills of the types used in the region.
District Historical Society Museum in Morawa, Western
Australia, which also publishes the quarterly Windmill
Journal, has the preminent collection of historic
windmills in Australia and hosts an important wind power
With plans to open to the public in the future, the Kregel Windmill
Company Museum in Nebraska City, Nebraska, preserves the last
fully intact historic windmill factory in the United States. Numerous
private windmill collections are also in locations where they
may be viewed by members of the traveling public. The
internet website provides an important means of communication
among individuals and institutions preserving historic wind
Important repositories for documents, records,
and historic trade literature for windmills include the Windmill
Manufacturers' Trade Literature Collection at the Panhandle-Plains
Historical Museum, Canyon, Texas; Nebraska
State Historical Society, Lincoln, Nebraska; American
Wind Power Center, Lubbock, Texas; William McCook Collection,
Museum of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia;
Southwest Collection, Texas Tech University Libraries, Lubbock,
Texas; Library, National
Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.; American
Heritage Center, University of Wyoming, Laramie, Wyoming;
Hal Higgins Agricultural History Collection, University of California
at Davis, Davis, California.
Since 1982 the Windmillers' Gazette has chronicled
water-pumping windmills as used in North America and around the
world. Its articles have documented evolution of technology and
applications in the manufacture, distribution, and use of these
devices, which by the thousands continue to employ the free power
of the wind to serve humans. Wherever you are in the world, if
you are interested in wind power utilization, you will enjoy reading
the quarterly Windmillers' Gazette.