All about windmills
For kids: Windmills have been around for centuries, and the modern versions still work hard today.
"Behold! A giant am I!" That's how Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, "The Windmill," begins. Towering above us, the big arms (or blades) of the De Gooyer windmill hung motionless in the blue sky.Skip to next paragraph
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Once upon a time, those arms – often called sails – would have turned in the wind and helped power machinery to grind corn into meal. But now the windmill is a tourist attraction.
It's possible that the Netherlands wouldn't be the country it is today without these enormous structures.
Beginning in the 1200s, they were used to drain excess water from low-lying marshes and fens so that the Dutch people could live and work on the formerly wet ground.
When windmills were working at their peak – that is, when a good strong wind was blowing and the sails were turned to the wind – they were reported to be able to pump 10,000 gallons of water each minute into the canals that had been built to manage the water.
In the 1600s, the crankshaft and camshaft became popular in Europe. These technologies made the windmills useful for many more tasks.
A camshaft is a rod with many bumps along its length. It's connected with gears to the crankshaft, which turns it. This helps create a lifting motion.
With this technology, windmills could be used to help make paper and grind grain, cocoa, and spices.
They were also used to saw timber. Often the wood was used to help build Dutch ships that sailed off to trade in and colonize many lands, including what are today known as Indonesia, Taiwan, South Africa, Malaysia, and New York.
The Netherlands had many different kinds of windmills. Because they were built to do different jobs, their appearance wasn't always the same.
One is the post mill. This is the oldest European type of windmill, possibly dating to the 1200s. It's square and rests on a center post. The post allows the whole structure to be turned to face the wind. Farmers could do this either by pushing a heavy beam, or by harnessing horses or oxen to do the work.
Smock mills, which can rise 60 feet or more in the air, look as though they are built on a platform. That's so they could rise above the trees and buildings that are near them and capture the wind.
Because only the tops of smock mills turn, the body of the mill could be made much larger to hold more millstones or machinery. That meant it could do more work than a post mill.