Rise of the Self-Oiling Windmil

Innovative systems eliminated dreaded maintenance chore

| June 2005

For the farmer in the early 1900s, a windmill was almost as good as a hired hand … except when maintenance was needed. Then, the labor-saving device - with working parts located as much as 80 feet in the air - fast became a nuisance. Self-oiling systems, first devised in about 1910, changed all that.

Having worked in the well and water-related business, as well as with vintage pieces in our museum (Little Village Farm, Dell Rapids, S.D.), I have become quite involved with windmills. They are rather interesting pieces. Unlike most mechanical items, they require only minimal annual service. And, if you forget to maintain a windmill, it will keep working right along, none the worse for wear, for several years.

Early windmills were termed "direct stroke." For each revolution of the wheel, water was lifted. Later, back-geared mills were devised. These made 3 to 3-1/2 revolutions for each pumping cycle. The theory behind that technology was that more water would be pumped, on average, as the geared-down units run in lighter winds.

Initially, windmill mechanisms were exposed to the elements, with either grease cups to fill, or boxings with lids. The boxings contained a cotton waste into which oil was poured, providing lubrication for a short time. The majority of these mills employed babbitt for bearings, babbitt being fairly tolerant of lack of lubrication.

Self-oiling mills were introduced in 1910 with "The Little Giant" from the Elgin (Ill.) Wind Power & Pump Co. This unit at least kept the gears and bearings oiled and protected, but left the stroking components exposed to face the elements.

In 1915, Aermotor, another major player, devised a less-than-stellar design for oiling the top works. In that design, a bent spring arrangement was supposed to flick oil around. It didn't. We have a Model 502 in the museum and you can readily see why this plan did not work.