The Great Windmill War

In the late 1800s, competition was fierce and windmill companies were waging war on each other

Engraving of wooden-bladed windmills from U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co.'s 1885 catalog.

Engraving of wooden-bladed windmills from U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co.'s 1885 catalog.

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Don Quixote wasn't the only one who ever tilted at windmills.

In the wind-driven spring of 1892, Challenge Windmill & Feed Mill Co., of Batavia, Ill., squared off against its archrivals, the Aermotor Co. and the U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co. of Kansas City, Mo.

At issue was Aermotor's flagrant claim, published in the April 1892 issue of Farm Tool Journal, that the Challenge-made windmill towers in the state of New York were blown down or severely damaged by a storm that swept through the region.

Challenge fought back with this scathing rebuttal addressed to the editors of Farm Implement News: "We wish to put on record our statement that out of the hundreds of our company's steel windmills and towers in the great state of New York, not a single one was injured and not one cent was paid out for repairs of any kind."

To press the point, executives at Challenge presented a half-dozen letters from farmers across the country, praising Challenge's Daisy, Dandy and O.H. windmills. "None of these brands had been damaged by the severe March storm," a company statement claimed.

Big business

The windmill business in the United States was extremely competitive in its heyday between 1890 and 1920. From a meager start just before the Civil War, the various windmill companies had grown to employ 600 workers by 1879, and sales had reached more than a million dollars a year.

By 1889, sales had doubled and within a decade wind engine sales doubled again. In 1919, nearly 2,000 employees were working in dozens of American windmill factories with total annual revenue reaching about $10,000,000.

The Aermotor Co. – which sold 2,288 units in 1889 – projected that its total 1892 windmill sales would exceed 60,000 steel fans and towers. The company claimed production of one complete windmill and tower every 3 minutes per working day. As production increased, prices fell. By 1902 a farmer could buy a Sears, Roebuck & Co. "Kenwood" ball bearing, back-geared windmill for only $12.75 – about half the price of the nearest competitor.

A few of the nearly 100 brand names of this colorful period in windmill building included: Ace, Aermotor, Buckeye, Badger, Challenge, Dandy, Daisy, Decorah, Eclipse, Enterprise, Fountain, Gem, Halladay, Monitor, Princess, Racine, Red Cross, Sampson, Steel Queen, Stover, Sunflower and Wonder windmills.

European inspired, American made

Distinctly American wind engines evolved from the enormous Dutch-style wooden grist mills – complete with cloth sails and living quarters for the miller and his wife – that New Amsterdam colonists built up and down "Broadway" on Manhattan Island beginning in 1624.

Windmill design didn't evolve much during the next 100 years. They still looked like inverted three-story ice cream cones with doors and windows. The rapid migration of farmers and ranchers westward, however, necessitated lighter, portable windmills that could be left alone to turn unattended in the slightest breeze and also be strong enough to weather frequent storms.

Some enterprising pioneers built their own ground-level, paddle-wheel-style wooden windmills, mounted vertically in open-sided boxes facing the prevailing wind. Other homesteaders improvised using simple canvas sailed windmills mounted on 20-foot wooden towers. The pivot-mounted fan's direction was controlled by a diagonal wooden beam, which stretched from the top of the tower to a movable stake driven in the ground below.

From Nebraska to the Oklahoma Territory, some creative but cash-poor farmers built "battle-axe" style windmills using the slats from packing crates nailed to simple X-shaped arms and placed atop three-story towers of braced sapling poles. One of these crude propellers – 10 feet in diameter – could pump enough water to support 75 head of cattle or irrigate 10 acres of summer vegetables. In wintertime, a 20-mile-an-hour wind could produce enough power to run a sawmill for firewood.

In 1855, an unnamed Iowa farmer hoisted a 17-foot-diameter wooden-bladed turbine to the top of a heroic 70-foot tower and began pumping several hundred gallons of water a day. Other Midwest farmers copied and improved upon his many-bladed style, and a thousand windmill patents were formally recorded during the next two decades.

Modern 'windcatchers'

One of the best sellers of the 1880s was a wooden-bladed windmill invented by a young Connecticut mechanic named Daniel Halladay. The earlier Dutch smock-style windmills had no speed governors, other than a primitive friction clutch and the reduction of the amount of exposed canvas on their wood-framed blades. This shortcoming led to frequent damage – or outright destruction because the fragile wooden fan whirled too fast in a storm.

Halladay solved the problem by using centrifugal force to close his wheel's jointed wooden fan blades, which folded forward like a flower closes its petals at nightfall. The U.S. Wind Engine and Pump Co. manufactured Halladay standard – wooden-bladed – windmills in Batavia, Ill., from 1865 until the stock market crash of 1929.

Halladay-designed windmills came in 18 sizes, from 1 to 40 hp. The largest sizes were manufactured to fill the urgent demand created by railroad magnates, who raced to lay tracks west to Chicago. The huge water tanks, located every few miles along the tracks, required the extra strong pumping capacity provided by Halladay windmills. Another model produced by the company, a steel-bladed windmill called the Little Gem Wind Engine, needed no oil because it was constructed with graphite-impregnated bearings.

One of Halladay's contemporaries was the Rev. Leonard R. Walsh, a mechanically inclined preacher who also experimented with different configurations of wooden windmill blades. In 1868, after several years of trail and error, he and his son began manufacturing their new "Eclipse" windmill. It came with a rudder to keep it facing the wind, but also had a smaller side-mounted vane that would turn the wheel out of the wind during a storm. A weighted lever, attached to the side vane, swung the fan blades back into the breeze when the storm finally passed.

Both Halladay and Walsh won gold medals for their innovative windmill designs at the 1876 Centennial Exposition held in Philadelphia, Pa.

Thomas Perry, an engineer with the U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co., conducted the first comprehensive study of windmill designs. To study wind-power efficiency of his revolutionary metal-bladed design (conceived in 1883), Perry constructed a huge steam-powered centrifuge in which he mounted 61 different wheel and blade combinations and conducted 5,000 separate tests.

The best design – dubbed the "Aermotor" – featured slightly curved, thin steel blades that turned in the slightest breeze. Perry geared down his prototype's head by a 3-to-1 ratio to increase pumping power and prevent the machine from flying apart under high wind conditions.

Perry perfected the final galvanized steel configuration after he quit U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co., and was hired by La Verne Noyes, a Chicago-based farm implement designer who likely founded the Aermotor Co. The metal windmill revolutionized the industry by outperforming its wooden-bladed contemporaries. Its design was so successful, that it remained virtually unchanged for the next 100 years.

The newly formed Aermotor Co. catalog made this exaggerated claim:

Our 12-foot model will, in a fair wind, easily do the work of two horses, and will satisfactorily drive any machine that can be operated by two horses. It pumps water, grinds grain, cuts feed, shells corn, saws wood and drives shop machinery of all kinds.

Electricity generation for farm lighting was added to that list at the turn of the 20th century.

With so many brands on the market, a consumer guide to windmill performance was sorely needed. In 1901, E.C. Murphy published a book that quickly ended exaggerated claims and put a number of windmill makers out of business.

Some of the performance data Murphy published included these revelations: Halladay's 30-foot diameter mill, with 144 thin, wooden sails, produced 1.07 hp in winds blowing between 12 and 25 miles per hour. Walsh's 22-foot "Eclipse" windmill only mustered 0.18 hp. The ubiquitous "Aermotor," with a 16-foot diameter metal blade-span, developed 1.53 hp in a 20-mile an hour wind and could pump water at more than 100 gallons an hour.

The U.S. Government Printing Office was happy to foot the printing bill for Murphy's survey. Armed with the detailed information, enlightened consumers soon brought the "War of Windmills" to a close. FC