Windmills And How They Became A Dutch Icon

One of the first images that comes to mind when people think of Holland, no matter where they are from, is a windmill. Funny enough, windmills are not a Dutch invention at all. So how come they ended up as an icon for everything Dutch? The first windmills were probably invented by the Greek. We know that the Greek Tesibius, who lived from 285 to 222 BC, was probably the first who experimented with the idea of using wind instead of water to drive a mill.

We also know that the Persians had windmills for grinding grain, during the 940s, although historians suspect that they may have existed in the area already in the 700s. These were fixed mills that could not turn to follow changing winds. Only if the wind was blowing from a certain direction the mills could be used. Windmills first pop up in Europe during the 1000s and 1100s in Flanders and Normandy. These were also fixed mills and mainly used for grinding grain.

Around 1180, we find the first documented rotating windmills in Flanders, also known as post mills. These mills were a technical revolution because they allowed the miller to follow the wind by turning the upper part of the mill, hence making more and better use of it. During the 1200s and 1300s, the post mill spread around Europe and could be found from Scandinavia in the North to Bulgaria and Turkey in the South.

By the 1400s, post mills were a very common sight in almost every part of Europe. So what happened that nowadays people associate windmills so specifically with the Netherlands? Cynics may say that this is mostly the result of the promotional efforts of the Dutch Bureau for Tourism. And although they have put a lot of effort in promoting an image of tulips, cheese and windmills overseas, they did not invent these icons. They merely took and emphasized icons that were already there.

The fame of the Dutch windmills probably started in the 1600s because of a man called Cornelis Corneliszoon van Uitgeest, who lived from about 1550 to about 1607. He had a brilliant idea: he added a crankshaft (an Arabic invention, by the way) to a windmill to convert the rotating movement to an up and down movement. This way a windmill could be used to saw wood at a significantly higher speed than any experienced hand sawing team at the time. He obtained a patent for his invention in 1593. A very lucky timing because already in 1602 the Dutch East India Company was founded to explore the East Indies. As a consequence, the demand for wood to build ships grew explosively during the decades to follow.

Sawing mills were implemented en masse to supply the tons of wood Amsterdam's shipyards devoured each year. The first sawing mills however, were not build near the Amsterdam shipyards but along the river Zaan north of Amsterdam. The reason for this is that the hand sawing guilds of Amsterdam, feeling threatened by the sawing mils, managed to ban them from the city. Therefore, they were built just outside Amsterdam's borders were the guilds had no power and the wood was simply shipped to Amsterdam over the river Zaan.

Cornelis' patent expired in 1610 and shortly after the amount of sawing mills grew explosively. In a couple of years, almost 90 mills arose in the province of Holland of which 53 were located in the Zaan area. Once it became clear that the ban on sawing mills could not save the hand sawing industry, the ban was lifted in 1630 and the amount of sawing mills grew even further. Historians believe that at the peak of the wind mill era, over 1000 mills were operating in the Holland province. This was using wind power on an industrial scale, especially considering that the Holland province has a land area of only 2,670 km2 (or 1,030 sq mi). Add to this all the mills used to pump water to keep the reclaimed land dry, and it becomes clear that nowhere in Europe windmills were so prominent in the landscape as they were in Holland. Some historians have even theorized that the Dutch jumped on the Industrial Revolution train somewhat late because they already had an industry going powered by wind and hence did not feel the need to switch to steam. Along the same lines the Dutch adopted the train rather late because they had a good transportation network in place using canal boats.

Nowadays little windmills are left in the Netherlands, the most famous being those at the Zaanse Schans. Industry and pumps to keep our feet dry are now powered by electricity. However, we are perhaps slowly reaching back to our windmill days. Over the last two decades,  more and more modern wind turbines have been installed in an effort to produce clean power. Slowly, wind turbines are reclaiming the landscape the wind mills dominated for centuries hence redefining on of our best known icons.