Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 766:
MIDWESTERN WINDMILLS

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 766.

Today, a look at the hi-tech behind a bucolic scene. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Writer Bill George shows an arresting photo from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. A forest of windmills crowds around a small lagoon. The 1893 World's Fair danced with new miracles: elevators, moving sidewalks, motion pictures, every form of harnessed electricity -- and the world's first Ferris wheel.

Yet the windmill exhibit was as popular and spectacular as anything there. It spoke to fundamental need. Our huge flat heartland had few electric wires and fewer falling streams.

If power technology in Nebraska didn't mean steam-engines in 1893, it had to mean windmills. And few places in the American outback had steam engines.

We'd started out building Dutch-style mills in the East. But winds on the Great Plains were less friendly to large slow-turning sails. The sails would speed up and tear to pieces.

A mill repairer, John Burnham, went to a shop boss, Daniel Halladay, in the early 1850s. He said, "If you can design a windmill that'll protect itself in high winds, I can sell it."

Halladay and Burnham built a fine Rube Goldberg. It had a centrifugal governor and blades that folded in sectors as the wind rose. It worked well enough, but New England didn't like it.

So they took it to Chicago -- our gateway to the West. Halladay windmills were soon pumping water for cattle, steam locomotives, and irrigation. They set up the U.S. Wind Engine Company to meet mushrooming demands.

After the Civil War, a missionary -- Leonard Wheeler -- wanted a cheaper and simpler windmill for the Ojibwa Indians in Wisconsin. Wheeler and his son patented a new windmill in 1867.

A controller simply turned the guide vane in winds over 30 mph. The blades lined up with the wind and stopped spinning. The Wheelers set up the Eclipse Wind Engine Company. They went into competition with U.S. Wind and a host of imitators.

So U.S. Wind hired an engineer, Thomas Perry, to rethink the theory of windmill design. He reshaped the blades. He simplified the shut-off controller. Perry gave us the clean, efficient design we see all over America today. He called it the Aermotor.

But making it meant retooling. U.S. Wind rejected the Aermotor. Perry had to go out and find another company to produce it. When he did, the American farm windmill was finally done.

Perry's Aermotor seems hidden in that forest of windmills at the 1893 Fair. But I can spot it. After all, that neat design went on to become an icon of my childhood. I used to think it was as organic as the cornfields around it. I'd almost rather not know -- that it was the end of 40 years of hi-tech engineering.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


George, B., Reaping the Wind. American Heritage of Invention & Technology, Vol. 8, No. 3, Winter, 1993, pp. 8-14.

For a look at a number of historic windmills, see: http://www.spearman.org/windmillhistory.html




Photo by John Lienhard

A typical Perry-type windmill used for watering cattle in Eastern Montana


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.


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