What Is the Early History of Windmills?

Some historians believe that vertical-axis windmills were first constructed in Persia between A.D. 500 and 900 to assist in the tasks of grinding grain and pumping water. There are other accounts that vertical-axis windmills were first invented in China, however the first documentation of windmills in China was not until 1219.

The first windmills in Western Europe, which were built around 1270, had a horizontal-axis configuration. Around 1390, the Dutch began constructing tower mills, which were multi-floor towers with a post mill that had different floors whose purpose was to grind grain, remove chaff, store grain and serve as a residence for a family.

Over the years, windmill sails have been engineered to generate more aerodynamic lift, improving rotor efficiency and speed and resulting in better pumping and grinding action. With improvements to sails in Europe, windmills had many additional diverse functions including irrigation, drainage, sawmilling of wood and storing commodities.

With the advent of steam engines, the use of large tower mills began to decline in Europe in the 19th century. Around this time in the United States, the Holladay windmill was invented in 1854, which perfected mechanical water pumping systems that are still in use as of 2015.