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A Mighty Wind

They whipped through the wind current with a force that made the entire building shudder and vibrate. As I lay on the deck of the structure, I could feel the force of the wind as it propelled four white-and-orange sails through a rapid rotation that transformed the powerful flow of air along the low-lying waters of the Zaanse Schans into mechanical energy that could transform nuts and seeds into oil. This was my first experience with an operating windmill.

In a recent visit to the Netherlands I was able to spend some time hanging out in the De Zoeker (the Seeker) mill, located a short train ride outside of Amsterdam. This mill was one of a number that were preserved from the Zaan district, which some claim was the oldest industrial manufacturing center in the world. As many as 1,000 windmills may have been operating in this district when this technology using wood, stone and the wind peaked in the 18th century. They ground grains, sawed wood, produced paints and processed a number of other resources gathered through Dutch international trade efforts into additional useful products.

The origin of windmills is a bit murky. Some claim that the technology was imported from the Middle East during the Crusades. Others argue that the technology went in the opposite direction, having developed in Northern Europe and then diffused from there during the Crusades. Regardless of how the technology got there, Europe’s first wave of windmill mania began forming in the 12th century. By the start of the 19th century, the steam engine had risen to dominance, sweeping through the industrial landscape, leaving behind a growing number of abandoned windmills, their sails in tatters.

The De Zoeker mill I spent some time with produced oil from crushing nuts and seeds. It was first granted a milling permit in 1676 and took on the eight-sided form of what’s known as a smock windmill, named after the agricultural dress that it vaguely resembles. These were among the larger wind structures built. The blades and sails of the mill were attached to a cap section of the building that could be rotated into the wind independently of the main body of the structure. This allowed for larger windmills to be constructed that could accommodate a more diverse set of mechanical activities as well as larger sails with which to catch the wind.

Upon entering De Zoeker I was immediately struck by the repetitive noise generated by the mill. Inside there were two main processes underway. One involved a pair of grinding wheels that did the initial crushing of the nuts and seeds for oil. This was a somewhat soothing sound as the weighty stones rolled over the increasingly ground mesh.

The second process involved a wooden ram that would be dropped down on a wedge that pressed a warmed bag of the material that had been ground. The windmill was used to raise this large wooden beam and drop it in order to increase the pressure on the bag and its release of oil. When it was dropped against the wooden pressing wedge there would be an initial sharp and loud “thwack,” followed by a succession of less loud sounds as the ram bounced to stillness.

As I listened to the windmill, I eventually heard a second ram that was dropped to release the pressed bag (its contents were then used for cow feed). Listening a little closer, I could hear the transfer of energy between gears and wheels that formed the mechanical genesis and the audio background for the louder sounds. The pressed oil sat quietly in large metal drums near the door out.

Before leaving the Seeker, I went out on its raised deck to look more closely at its sails and listen to their movement. I lay down on the deck, using the main body of the building as a wind break. As I lay there, I thought a lot about how amazing this simple application of wind power had been back in the 17th century and how it was still pretty amazing today. I also thought about the irony that serious wind-power development was again being pursued in this and other parts of the world.

While the mechanical windmills of the Middle Ages made the Netherlands an important industrial power and literally helped it rise from the sea, the electricity-producing wind turbines of today may help the area avert the sea’s return. In order to reduce its oil dependence and greenhouse-gas emissions the Dutch have embarked on an ambitious program to expand the use of wind turbines. This low-lying country has come under particular threat as the rise of sea levels during this century is projected. It may well be that the wind comes to its rescue and keeps the waters back.

Such an approach may also hold great benefit for the United States to consider.

—Tom Nattell


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