Object lesson No 70

Harvey McGavin

A windmill - especially one that works - is a rare sight these days. Mostly they stand, arms aloft but unmoving, as relics of our pre-industrial past. But at one time there were thousands of them dotted around British coastlines, on hilltops and plains, providing a ready source of energy until first steam, then electricity, took power. Mills, from molina, the Latin for grindstone, were driven by water or horse power until soldiers returning from the Crusades introduced wind technology to this country in the 12th century. The use of wind power was, of course, well-known to sailors, but was first harnessed around the seventh century in parts of Persia where elementary windmills called panemones were used to grind grain and pump water from wells. These were set in small buildings with inlets to direct the breeze on to their sails, and rotated horizontally like a roulette wheel.

The first upright variety were post mills, perched like bird boxes on poles, and turned to face the prevailing breeze. This design was improved by the smock mill (named after the agricultural attire) which housed the sails and windshaft in a rotatable dome, and further refined by 18th-century inventions such as shuttered sails and fantails, lofty spurs such as the tail propeller on a helicopter, which automatically turned the mill to face the wind. Although principally used to grind grain, windmills also processed cocoa, mustard, pepper, snuff and cement. In East Anglia and the Netherlands, they were used to drain land, and in arid parts of the Mediterranean, such as Crete, they drew water from wells.

The windmill had various cultural spin-offs. John Constable - the son of a Suffolk miller - painted them, Cervantes's Don Quixote attacked the mills of La Mancha imagining them to be giants, thereby coining the phrase "tilting at windmills". (Occasionally windmills have attacked unsuspecting humans. The Prussian mill worker pictured was killed at the beginning of the last century after being caught by a sail.) The Who's Pete Townsend modelled his guitar action on their twirling arms, and no crazy golf course would be complete without one.

Now a new generation of sleek, three-armed windmills could be the clean, green solution to our energy needs. There are currently around 860 wind turbines in the UK, providing enough electricity for 250,000 homes - but still less than 1 per cent of consumption.

Ironically, windmills have returned to provide the very thing that supplanted them - electricity. You could say they have come full circle.

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Harvey McGavin

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