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Putting wind in the sails of ships and blades of windmills

Posted in Architecture, Boats, British Countryside, Engineering, Farming, Historical articles, History, Science, Ships on Monday, 2 April 2012

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This edited article about wind power originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 681 published on 1 February 1975.

windmill, picture, image, illustration

An English windmill by Ronald Lampitt

For many thousands of years until the age of modern propulsion, wind has been the prime force whereby man was able to move across vast stretches of water. Nearly all the great explorations across the oceans of the world were made under sail. The kind most commonly used was the rectangular sail or square sail. It hung from a pole or crosspiece called a yard, the yard being fastened to the mast by a loop.

Later on, people improved on this simple principle and varied it in many ways. A Dutch engineer, Simon Stevin built a four-wheeled carriage with sails, plus masts which was able to move up and down the seashore and could carry 26 people, in comparative comfort. The Dutch always had the reputation of being a seafaring nation and from about 1400 to 1800, the Netherlands pioneered most of the leading improvements in sailing ships. To them is attributed the invention of the jib and gaff-sail.

In the nineteenth century, American ship builders built a series of tall-masted ships called clippers. These were renowned for their sailing capacities but in turn, they were dependent on their unseen ally, the wind. If the wind was in the right quarter, records could be set up, but if the wind failed, the ship would languish. From this, arose the phrase “in the doldrums”. (The Doldrums is a belt of calms and light variable winds.) The steamer which succeeded the clippers or schooners was, of course, not dependent on the wind. With its own built-in power unit, it could plod on, through fair weather or foul.

The wind was also harnessed for driving windmills. These were generally used for grinding corn or pumping out waterlogged agricultural land so that more food could be grown. It has been assumed that windmills were a Continental invention and that travellers from the British Isles stumbled upon them. But according to contemporary records, one of the earliest mentions of a windmill occurs in documents which are concerned with the Third Crusade, (1189-92). One of the earliest definite records on an English mill is dated 1191.

By the eighteenth century, the local grinding mill was an integral landmark of the rural scene. A mill could usually generate about 30 h.p. while the sail turned at the rate of 12-20 revolutions per minute.

Windmills were composed of three types. “Post” mills mainly in Suffolk, “smock” mills in Kent and “tower” mills in Lincolnshire and the Isle of Ely. In good conditions, a mill could grind ten bushels an hour.

Industrial civilisation killed the windmills and now most of them remain only as picturesque survivals. By 1957, there were only thirty millers left, and by 1964, only 21, (in Britain).

But the day of the wind power is not entirely over. Wind pumps still help many farmers to get water and the winds propel an increasing number of pleasure yachts in our present age of leisure. And if you still don’t believe in the power of the wind, we suggest that you try and put up an umbrella in the teeth of the wind. We think that you will find that the wind will win!

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