Rise of the American Windmill

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

| April 2016

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.