AskDefine | Define windmill

The Collaborative Dictionary

Windmill \Wind"mill`\, n. A mill operated by the power of the wind, usually by the action of the wind upon oblique vanes or sails which radiate from a horizontal shaft. --Chaucer. [1913 Webster]

Word Net



1 a mill that is powered by the wind
2 generator that extracts usable energy from winds [syn: aerogenerator, wind generator]




  1. A machine which translates linear motion of wind to rotational motion by means of adjustable vanes called sails.
  2. The structure containing such machinery.
  3. A child's toy consisting of vanes mounted on a stick that rotate when blown by a person or by the wind.
  4. (basketball) A dunk where the dunker swings his arm in a circular motion before throwing the ball through the hoop.
  5. A guitar move where the strumming hand mimics a turning windmill.


machinery structure child's toy


  1. To rotate with a sweeping motion.
    She ran down the hill, windmilling her arms with glee.
  2. Of a rotating part of a machine, to become disengaged and rotate freely.
    The axle broke and the wheel windmilled in place briefly before careening through the wall.


rotate with a sweeping motion

Related terms

See also

A windmill is a machine that is powered by the energy of the wind. It is designed to convert the energy of the wind into more useful forms using rotating blades or sails. The term also refers to the structure it is commonly built on. In much of Europe, windmills served originally to grind grain, though later applications included pumping water and, more recently, generation of electricity. Recent electricity generating versions are referred to as wind turbines.


A windmill operating an organ is described as early as the 1st century AD by Hero of Alexandria, marking probably the first instance of a wind powering machine in history. Vertical axle windmills were first used in eastern Persia (Sistan) by the 9th century AD as described by Muslim geographers. Horizontal axle windmills of the type generally used today were invented in Northwestern Europe in the 1180s.

Vertical axle windmills

The first windmills had long vertical shafts with rectangle shaped blades and appeared in Persia in the 9th century. Made of six to twelve sails covered in reed matting or cloth material, these windmills were used to grind corn or draw up water, and quite different from the European versions. A similar type of vertical shaft windmill with rectangle blades, used for irrigation, can also be found in 13th century China (during the Jurchen Jin Dynasty in the north), introduced by the travels of Yelü Chucai to Turkestan in 1219.

Horizontal axle windmills

Fixed windmills, oriented to the prevailing wind were, for example, extensively used in the Cyclades islands of Greece. The economies of power and transport allowed the use of these 'offshore' mills for grinding grain transported from the mainland and flour returned. A 1/10th share of the flour was paid to the miller in return for his service. This type would mount triangular sails when in operation.
In North Western Europe, the horizontal-shaft or vertical windmill (so called due to the dimension of the movement of its blades) dates from the last quarter of the 12th century in the triangle of northern France, eastern England and Flanders. Joseph Needham states that the earliest known reference came in 1191 by a Dean Herbert of East Anglia, who supposedly competed with the mills of the abbey of Bury St Edmunds. These earliest mills were used to grind cereals. The evidence at present is that the earliest type was the post mill, so named because of the large upright post on which the mill's main structure (the "body" or "buck") is balanced. By mounting the body this way, the mill is able to rotate to face the (variable) wind direction; an essential requirement for windmills to operate economically in North-Western Europe, where wind directions are various. By the end of the thirteenth century the masonry tower mill, on which only the timber cap rotated rather than the whole body of the mill, had been introduced. In the Netherlands these stone towerlike mills are called "round or eight-sided stone stage mills, ground-sailers (windmills with long blades/sails reaching almost down to the ground), mound mills, etc." (Dutch: ronde/achtkante stenen stelling molens, grond-zeilers, beltmolens, etc.). Dutch tower mills ("torenmolens") are always cylindrical (such as atop castle or city wall towers). Due to the fact that only the cap of the tower mill needed to be turned the main structure could be made much taller, allowing the blades to be made longer, which enabled them to provide useful work even in low winds. Windmills were often built atop castle towers or city walls, and were a unique part of a number of fortifications in New France, such as at Fort Senneville.
The familiar lattice style of windmill sails (also called "common" sails) allowed the miller to attach sailcloths to the sails (while applying a brake). Trimming the sails allowed the windmill to turn at near the optimal speed in a large range of wind velocities.
The fantail, a small windmill mounted at right angles to the main sails which automatically turns the heavy cap and main sails into the wind, was invented by Edmund Lee in 1745, in England. The smock mill is a later variation of the tower mill, constructed of timber and originally developed in the sixteenth century for land drainage. With some subsequent development mills became versatile in windy regions for all kind of industry, most notably grain grinding mills, sawmills (late 16th century), threshing, and, by applying scoop wheels, Archimedes' screws, and piston pumps, pumping water either for land drainage or for water supply. In 1772, Scottish millwright, Andrew Meikle developed the spring sail made from a series of connected parallel shutters that could be opened or closed according to windspeed. To do this the sails had to be stopped, but the sails also incorporated a spring which allowed the shutters to open a little more to prevent damage if the wind suddenly strengthens. In 1789, Stephen Hooper invented the roller reefing sail, which allowed automatic adjustment of the sail whilst in motion. In 1807, William Cubitt a Norfolk engineer, invented a new type of sail, known there on as patent sails, using a chain and a rod that passed through the centre of the windshaft. These sails had the shutters of Meikle's spring sails and the automatic adjustment of Hooper's roller reefing sails. This became the basis of self-regulating sails. These avoided the constant supervision that had been required up till then.
With the industrial revolution, the importance of windmills as primary industrial energy source was replaced by steam and internal combustion engines. Polder mills were replaced by steam, or diesel engines. The industrial revolution and increased use of Steam and later Diesel power however had a lesser effect on the Mills of the Norfolk Broads in the United Kingdom, these being so isolated (on extensive uninhabitable marshland), therefore some of these mills continued use as drainage pumps till as late as 1959. More recently historic windmills have been preserved for their historic value, in some cases as static exhibits when the antique machinery is too fragile to put in motion, and in other cases as fully working mills.
See Flood control in the Netherlands for use of windmills in land reclamation in the Netherlands.

In Canada and the United States

Windmills feature uniquely in the history of New France, particularly in Canada, where they were used as strong points in fortifications. Prior to the 1690 Battle of Québec, the strong point of the city's landward defenses was a windmill called Mont-Carmel, where a three-gun battery was in place. This helped make it the "most substantial castle-like fort" near Montreal.
In the United States, the development of the water-pumping windmill was the major factor in allowing the farming and ranching of vast areas of North America, which were otherwise devoid of readily accessible water. They contributed to the expansion of rail transport systems throughout the world, by pumping water from wells to supply the needs of the steam locomotives of those early times. Two prominent brands were the Eclipse Windmill developed in 1867 (which was later bought by Fairbanks-Morse) and the Aermotor, which first appeared in 1888 and is still in production. The effectiveness of the Aermotor's automatic governor, which prevents it from flying apart in a windstorm, led to its popularity over other models. Currently, the Aermotor windmill company is the only remaining water windmill manufacturer in the United States. They continue to be used in areas of the world where a connection to electric power lines is not a realistic option.
The multi-bladed wind turbine atop a lattice tower made of wood or steel was, for many years, a fixture of the landscape throughout rural America. These mills, made by a variety of manufacturers, featured a large number of blades so that they would turn slowly with considerable torque in low winds and be self regulating in high winds. A tower-top gearbox and crankshaft converted the rotary motion into reciprocating strokes carried downward through a rod to the pump cylinder below.
Windmills and related equipment are still manufactured and installed today on farms and ranches, usually in remote parts of the western United States where electric power is not readily available. The arrival of electricity in rural areas, brought by the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) in the 1930s through 1950s, contributed to the decline in the use of windmills in the US. Today, the increases in energy prices and the expense of replacing electric pumps has led to an increase in the repair, restoration and installation of new windmills.

Modern windmills

The most modern generations of windmills are more properly called wind turbines, or wind generators, and are primarily used to generate electricity. Modern windmills are designed to convert the energy of the wind into electricity. The largest wind turbines can generate up to 6MW of power (for comparison a modern fossil fuel power plant generates between 500 and 1,300MW).
With increasing environmental concern, and approaching limits to fossil fuel consumption, wind power has regained interest as a renewable energy source. It is increasingly becoming more useful and sufficient in providing energy for many areas of the world.
One area in which it is becoming rather popular is around the midwest of the United States where, due to great amounts of wind, turbines have become very useful.


A windpump is a type of windmill used for pumping water from a well or draining land.
Windpumps are used extensively in Southern Africa and Australia and on farms and ranches in the central plains of the United States. In South Africa and Namibia thousands of windpumps are still operating. These are mostly used to provide water for human use as well as drinking water for large sheep stocks.
Kenya has also benefited from the Africa development of windpump technologies. At the end of the 70s, the UK NGO Intermediate Technology Development Group provided engineering support to the Kenyan company Bobs Harries Engineering Ltd for the development of the Kijito windpumps. Nowadays Bobs Harries Engineering Ltd is still manufacturing the Kijito windpumps and more than 300 Kijito windpumps are operating in the whole of East Africa.
The Netherlands is well known for its windmills. Most of these iconic structures situated along the edge of polders are actually windpumps, designed to drain the land. These are particularly important as much of the country lies below sea level.
Many windpumps were built in The Broads, of East Anglia in the United Kingdom for the draining of land. They have since been mostly replaced by electric power, many of these windpumps still remain, mainly in a derelict state (pictured), however some have been restored. On US farms, particularly in the Midwest, windpumps of the type pictured were used to pump water from farm wells for cattle. Today this is done primarily by electric pumps, and only a few windpumps survive as unused relics of an environmentally sustainable technology.



  • A.G. Drachmann: "Heron's Windmill," Centaurus, 7 (1961), pp. 145-151

Further reading

  • Ahmad Y Hassan, Donald Routledge Hill (1986). Islamic Technology: An illustrated history. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-42239-6.
  • Chartrand, French Fortresses in North America 1535–1763: Québec, Montréal, Louisbourg and New Orleans.
  • Dietrich Lohrmann, "Von der östlichen zur westlichen Windmühle", Archiv für Kulturgeschichte, Vol. 77, Issue 1 (1995)
  • A.G. Drachmann, "Heron's Windmill", Centaurus, 7 (1961).
  • Needham, Joseph (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 4, Physics and Physical Technology, Part 2, Mechanical Engineering. Taipei: Caves Books Ltd.
  • Hugh Pembroke Vowles: "An Enquiry into Origins of the Windmill", Journal of the Newcomen Society, Vol. 11 (1930-31)
windmill in Afrikaans: Windmeul
windmill in Arabic: طاحونة هوائية
windmill in Bosnian: Vjetrenjača
windmill in Czech: Větrný mlýn
windmill in Danish: Vindmølle
windmill in Pennsylvania German: Windbump
windmill in German: Windmühle
windmill in Estonian: Tuuleveski
windmill in Modern Greek (1453-): Ανεμόμυλος
windmill in Spanish: Molino#Molinos_de_viento
windmill in Esperanto: Ventmuelejo
windmill in Persian: آسیاب بادی
windmill in French: Moulin à vent
windmill in Western Frisian: Wynmûne
windmill in Korean: 풍차
windmill in Croatian: Vjetrenjača
windmill in Armenian: Հողմաղաց
windmill in Indonesian: Kincir angin
windmill in Icelandic: Vindmylla
windmill in Italian: Mulino a vento
windmill in Hebrew: טחנת רוח
windmill in Georgian: ქარის წისქვილი
windmill in Luxembourgish: Wandmillen
windmill in Limburgan: Windmeule
windmill in Malay (macrolanguage): Kincir angin
windmill in Dutch: Windmolen
windmill in Japanese: 風車
windmill in Norwegian: Vindmølle
windmill in Norwegian Nynorsk: Vindmølle
windmill in Polish: Wiatrak
windmill in Portuguese: Moinho de vento
windmill in Russian: Ветряная мельница
windmill in Finnish: Tuulimylly
windmill in Swedish: Väderkvarn
windmill in Tamil: காற்றாலை
windmill in Vietnamese: Cối xay gió
windmill in Turkish: Yeldeğirmeni
windmill in Ukrainian: Вітряк
windmill in Venetian: Molin a vent
windmill in Chinese: 风车 (机械)
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