Rise of the American Windmill

Tracking the technological advances that made way for the American windmill in the 19th century.

Dutch apron windmill

This 1813 painting by Johannes Jelgerhuis shows a typical Dutch “apron” windmill with cloth-covered sails.

Painting by Johannes Jelgerhuis

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Amish country is about the only place where tall, spindly American-style windmills are seen anymore. Before the 1940s, these mills were common on a lot of farms (although I don’t remember many in our part of western Pennsylvania), and they are still seen on the Western prairies, where they keep remote stock watering tanks filled.

Adapted to varied locales

The earliest recorded windmill was a vertical sail structure in ancient (A.D. 100-400) Persia that was used to turn stones to grind grain. The Muslim advance into Spain in the 8th century, and the Crusades a couple of centuries later, carried the idea to Europe, while the 13th century raids begun by Genghis Khan helped spread Persian windmills to the Far East.

European winds weren’t as strong as those of the Middle Eastern deserts and the vertical sails didn’t work well, so it occurred to some unknown person to turn the thing on its side and raise it higher off the ground. Everyone is familiar with the large windmills with cloth sails that appear in illustrations of the Netherlands, although they were common all across Europe for grinding grain and pumping water.

Responding to market demand

When settlers came to this country, the eastern part of which has streams and rivers galore, water wheels were the power source of choice. They had the advantage over windmills of being easier and less costly to construct, although some European-style mills were built in the east.

John Burnham Jr. was born in 1816. The son of a Vermont brass founder and silversmith, Burnham ended up in Ellington, Connecticut, making hydraulic ram pumps and repairing the big sail mills. Burnham saw that many potential customers for his pumps didn’t have enough fall to make a hydraulic ram, which relies on the weight of a column of water to push part of that water to a considerable height, and he wasn’t a fan of the big expensive sail mills.

When he received an order for a small, inexpensive self-regulating windmill, Burnham realized he had no idea how to make such a device. He went to Daniel Halladay, who ran a nearby machine shop, told him of his idea and asked for Halladay’s help. After thinking it over, Halladay replied, “I can invent a self-regulating windmill that will be safe from all danger of destruction in violent wind storms, but after I should get it made, I don’t know of a single man in all the world who would want one.” Burnham assured Halladay there were people out there who would want them, and that he, Burnham, would find them.  

Launch of U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co.

In August 1854, Halladay was granted a patent for a windmill, a 4-vaned affair with a complicated system of springs, levers and rods. If strong winds caused the wheel to turn too rapidly, Halladay’s system turned each vane on its axis, effectively presenting less vane surface to the wind, thus slowing the mill.

The two men started a company to manufacture Halladay’s windmill in South Coventry, Connecticut. But the machines were a tough sell in the northeast, where water and steam power were pretty firmly established. So in 1856, Burnham moved to Chicago, where he met a railroad man, who, after looking over Halladay’s invention, saw its possibilities for keeping the railroad’s track-side water tanks filled. In addition, western farmers saw the advantages of the inexpensive mills for keeping themselves and their stock supplied with water.

Burnham and the railroad man established U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co. in Chicago. Initially, the new firm bought its windmills from Halladay’s company in Connecticut, but as sales took off in the west, the two firms merged, and in 1863 a new factory was built in Batavia, Illinois.

A few years later, Leonard Wheeler from Wisconsin invented a windmill that had a simpler regulating system. Instead of folding vanes, two rudder vanes and an adjustable hanging weight held the face of the mill into a light wind, but allowed it to swing sideways and present its edge to a strong wind. Wheeler started Eclipse Wind Engine Co. in Beloit, Wisconsin.

Evolving design

After that, windmill factories began to spring up everywhere; 69 were listed in the Farm Implement News Buyer’s Guide of 1893. Not all were reputable or offered a good product. By 1911, just 40 companies remained (and only 18 were listed in the 1945 guide).

Most of these manufacturers made variations of the Halladay or Wheeler design and paid royalties for the privilege, but in the late 1880s, a U.S. Wind Engine engineer named Thomas Perry developed a new design. When his bosses ignored it, Perry quit and turned to a Chicago farm implement manufacturer named Noyes.

Perry’s wind engine had curved galvanized steel blades and was said to be 87 percent more efficient than the old wooden-bladed types. The governor system was also much simplified, with an offset mounting, a folding rudder vane and a spring. This allowed the mill to turn its edge into a strong wind, overcoming the spring, while the folding rudder vane remained parallel to the wind. As the wind lessened, the spring took over and pulled the mill face once more into the wind. Most windmills eventually adopted this system.

Perry’s new mill was called the Aermotor, a name with which many engine collectors are familiar. One source says the Aermotor wind engine developed only 1/2-hp, but with an 8-foot wheel and a 15- to 20-mph wind, it would pump more than 3,000 gallons of water from a 200-foot well in a day. The same source says that Aermotor production reached 20,000 units annually after just four years and grew to dominate the industry.

Electricity elbows in

One huge drawback to the early windmill was that the working parts at the top of tall towers had to be lubricated weekly. It was a job that most farmers hated and often put off until the squeal of dry bearings grew too loud to ignore. Periodic painting also required the occasional climb. Eventually, closed gearboxes were adopted. Closed gearboxes required only an annual oil change, but after the launch of rural electrification in the 1930s, electric motors and pump jacks soon replaced the windmill as a power source.

Rusty and vine-covered windmill towers can still be seen in farmyards, some with two or three sagging blades still in place. However, except for Amish farms and western stock tanks, windmills have largely disappeared from the rural landscape. At least two American companies still build windmills. Aermotor is based in San Angelo, Texas, and O’Brock Windmills, North Benton, Ohio, sells and installs pumping mills all over the country. In addition, the idea of wind power has been resurrected as an alternative to fossil fuels for generating electricity and wind farms are springing up everywhere. FC

For more information: Mid-America Windmill Museum, 732 S. Allen Chapel Rd., Kendallville, IN 46755; (260) 347-2334; http://midamericawindmillmuseum.org.


Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by email at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.