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
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.