Reaping The Wind
the year was 1893, and the Midwest was experiencing World’s Fair fever. Chicago’s town fathers, eager to show that their prairie city was more than just a cow town, had created a grand spectacle to celebrate (a year late) the four-hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America. Columbus may have been the excuse, but from the day of its opening the theme of the Columbian Exposition, like that of most world’s fairs, was Progress.
To the 21 million Americans who thronged the 600-acre fair to see the wonders of the age, no marvel was more a symbol of progress than electricity. From opening day, on May 1, when President Grover Cleveland pressed a button to activate the electrically operated fountains, fairgoers were treated to an electrical extravaganza. They saw Ötis elevators, the great Ferris wheel, clean and silent trains and boats, and a baby incubator, all running on electricity. After dark the grounds blazed with multicolored lights strung from pavilion to pavilion. The administration building alone was strung with more than 5,000 of Edison’s incandescent bulbs.
But in spite of all the electric stoves, the motion-picture projectors, the moving sidewalks, and the 127 dynamos used to power it all, electricity would not become universal for decades to come.
One of the most popular nonelectrical exhibits at the fair, and the one most representative of the real world of the 1890s, was the spectacular windmill display. A veritable forest of windmill towers was erected around the lagoon, and atop them sat fans of every conceivable size and description.
Windmill manufacturing was an important industry in the Midwest during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Names like Samson, Monitor, Challenge, and Star were as familiar in 1893 as IBM, General Electric, and Xerox are today. More than seventy-five windmill makers were in business that year, and many of them chartered special trains to carry their entire work force to Chicago to cheer on their entries in the fair’s windmill competition.
This was serious business. For little towns like Batavia, Freeport, Aurora, and Sandwich in Illinois, an unfavorable showing in Chicago could mean economic disaster back home. One factory team, sensing just such a calamity (and maybe having lifted a few too many nickel beers), snuck into the fairgrounds and tore down a competitor’s tower. However, events intervened to make the contest irrelevant. That year the nation suffered a catastrophic depression, and many of the companies that had exhibited their windmills at the fair, regardless of their quality, would be in receivership by the spring of 1894.
windmills have existed in this country since colonial times. Old World sail-type mills, copied from Dutch and English designs, with four radiating, cloth-wrapped wooden arms to catch the breeze, were erected all along the East Coast to pump water, grind grain, saw lumber, and power various sorts of machinery. The American farm windmill, with its circular fanlike wheel- the type we associate with Kansas or Nebraska grainfields and Texas or Wyoming cattle country—is a more recent and uniquely Yankee creation.
Daniel Halladay is generally credited with inventing it. He was approached in the early 1850s at his Ellington, Connecticut, machine shop by John Burnham, a roving “pump doctor” who was getting tired of repairing the big, cumbersome sail windmills. Every time the wind blew too hard and an operator didn’t furl the sails in time, the mill would spin too fast and eventually break itself apart. Then the hapless mill owner would call Burnham to pick up the pieces.
Burnham proposed that Halladay design and build a small, simple water-pumping windmill that wouldn’t spin itself to bits in a storm, and Burnham would sell it. Halladay saw no problem in building such a mill, but he thought that trying to market it to a bunch of hidebound New England farmers would be considerably harder. Burnham finally convinced the reluctant machinist, and together they formed the Halladay Wind Mill Company.
Halladay borrowed the design for a centrifugal governor from one used to control the speed of steam engines, adapting it to control the motion of his wind engine. His first models had four paddle-shaped blades that pivoted to vary their pitch and thus regulate the speed of the mill. In later models the fan, or wheel, was made of radiating angled wooden slats grouped in six sections. Each section was hinged to a hexagonal outer ring and was attached to the controlling governor at the wheel’s hub by steel rods. The wheel would present a large, nearly flat face to a gentle breeze, but as the breeze quickened, the governor would fold the fan open. In a strong wind the wheel would assume the shape of an open-bottomed basket, presenting little surface to the wind and preventing a destructive runaway.
A hanging weight attached to the governor served as a feedback mechanism; it would pull the sections of the wheel closed as the wind slackened. The entire assemblage could swivel 360 degrees on top of the tower, the shape of the wheel acting to keep it facing the wind. A single-throw crankshaft, connected to the wheel, changed the rotary fan motion into reciprocating motion. A wooden “sucker” rod with a swivel at its upper end connected the crankshaft to the well pump.
The windmill worked just as Halladay had said it would, but as he had also predicted, local enthusiasm for his new invention was less than ardent. Burnham got nowhere selling the new mills in the Northeast, where the wind was sporadic and water and steam power were in abundant supply. Desperate to save the fledgling company, he traveled to Chicago, a place he’d been told had plenty of wind. He arrived in the middle of a building boom resulting from Chicago’s new and growing status as a railroad hub. Burnham soon discovered that several new railroads needed a method of filling water tanks for their steam engines. Halladay’s windmill was the perfect answer. Burnham took orders for dozens of giant mills.
He also took orders from farmers looking for a labor-saving method of watering livestock and irrigating garden patches. The wealthy, too, clamored for Halladay’s invention, a convenient way to fill bathtubs in the new mansions being built around Chicago by the railroad and slaughterhouse barons. Before the advent of municipal water systems, every private home, public building, fire station, and stable in every Midwestern town either collected rainwater in cisterns or drew water by hand from private wells. Every one of them was a potential windmill customer. Burnham was in the right place at the right time with the right product, and business boomed. Halladay, back in Connecticut, couldn’t keep up with the orders. A new factory that included large casting and forging shops was set up in Batavia, west of Chicago, under the name of the United States Wind Engine and Pump Company. With the completion of the transcontinental railroad after the Civil War, and the subsequent westward expansion of farming and ranching onto the arid high plains, the need to pump water for irrigation, livestock, and locomotives became nationwide. Production at U.S. Wind Engine soared, and five other windmill companies began manufacturing in Batavia, using similar designs. The Halladay windmill would be made there until 1929.
Meanwhile, in southern Wisconsin, the Reverend Leonard R. Wheeler was trying to make life a little easier for the local Ojibwa Indians. One morning in early 1866 the Reverend Wheeler fell off a ladder and broke his wrist. While he sat there contemplating his plight, in hobbled his son William with a broken leg suffered that same day on a trip to St. Paul, Minnesota. Neither man relished the prospect of a long convalescence spent in idleness, so the pair decided to combine forces with whatever good limbs they had and design a windmill for the mission’s Indians.
In a short time, with the help of a local government blacksmith, the Wheelers erected their first windmill. It blew down in the next storm. After deeper study and considerable redesign, their second model met all their expectations. The Wheelers applied for a patent for the windmill in 1867 and soon thereafter organized a factory in Beloit to manufacture the Eclipse Wind Engine.
The Eclipse, like the later Halladay models, employed a wooden-slat wheel, but the Eclipse wheel had many more blades and did not open and close with changing wind conditions. Gone was the centrifugal governor and complex series of control rods radiating to separate wheel sections. In their place were a simple weathervane-like rudder attached to the engine frame, which pointed the wheel into the wind, and a second, smaller vane parallel to the wheel, which turned the wheel edgewise to a strong wind. When the wind decreased, a hanging weight, similar to that found on Halladay machines, would draw the wheel back into the wind. Like Burnham, the young Wheeler couldn’t make windmills fast enough. In a few years the Eclipse Wind Engine Company rivaled U.S. Wind Engine.
The windmill market in the 1870s and 1880s seemed inexhaustible. Factories sprang up in small towns from Ohio to Nebraska, many run by fast-buck artists who didn’t give a second thought to infringing on the competition’s patent rights. Their products were usually peddled by traveling hucksters whose ethics were no higher than the prevailing standard of the era.
As windmill companies proliferated, so too did advertising rhetoric. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a number of companies used galvanized-steel blades in their wheels, claiming they were stronger. Wood-wheel makers countered that theirs was a more natural substance to blow in the wind; trees weren’t made of steel, after all, and they held up in storms. In the 1890s U.S. Wind Engine went so far as to manufacture a very inferior steel model with the sole intent of creating a bad reputation for that variety. The scheme backfired as wooden wheels went out of favor with farmers tired of risking their necks on the towers trying to paint them. Left with a reputation for building poorquality steel windmills, the company lost much of its market.
The more reputable makers usually employed a modified Halladay or Eclipse pattern; companies would often license their designs to competitors, to be sold under different names. Most manufacturers used hollow cast-iron weights in their regulating systems, or to counterbalance the weight of the wheel on vaneless models. These ranged from eight pounds to more than a hundred, and their regulating action could be fine-tuned by placing ballast inside them in the form of sand, rocks, or lead shot. Such weights were cast in more than a hundred different forms; the most popular shapes were animals. A traveler in the Midwest at the turn of the century would be treated to a dangling cast-iron menagerie of cows, sheep, horses, bulls, deer, dogs, eagles, buffaloes, and even camels. Today antique windmill weights are much sought after as art objects, sometimes worth thousands of dollars (though usually much less).
The Elgin Wind Power & Pump Company used the squirrel as its trademark on some models until it found that farmers detested the grain-stealing rodents. The company then decided to stick with the trustworthy chicken. Eclipse made a crescent-moon weight, open end up, until a number of superstitious farmers wrote to the company during the drought of 1894, suggesting that it change the “dry” moon crescent to a “wet” (open end down) version.
Some windmill designs were flimsy shams, designed to hold up just long enough for the salesman to collect his money and get out of the county. Most of the rest performed just adequately. None could match the extravagant claims universally made for them by the manufacturers. That all changed in the early 1880s, when Thomas O. Perry, a mechanical engineer, was hired by U.S. Wind Engine to design a windmill scientifically.
Perry tested every variety of windmill he could lay his hands on. Under carefully controlled indoor conditions, using a steam-driven centrifuge that whirled his prototypes around to simulate the action of wind, Perry soon proved what he had suspected all along: every type of existing wheel was grossly inefficient at extracting energy from the wind. He then designed his own experimental wheels, 61 in all, and ran more than 5,000 tests on them.
Perry went to the management with his test results and a design for a new-style steel wheel. He was rebuffed: management was not about to retool the entire operation on the advice of an upstart engineer. Perry quit Halladay and went looking for someone who would appreciate his findings. That someone turned out to be LaVerne W. Noyés, a Chicago manufacturer of farm implements and dictionary stands. Noyes was impressed with the thoroughness of Perry’s research at U.S. Wind Engine and encouraged him to engineer an entirely new windmill. Perry did just that, and in 1888 Noyes’s factory produced the first “Aermotor.”
With precisely curved, galvanized-steel blades, the new “mathematical” windmill, as the competition derisively called it, was 87 percent more efficient than the best Halladay model. The all-important regulating system was much simplified. The governor, control rods, and troublesome weights were all replaced by a simple spring-controlled tail vane. Perry designed his mill so that the main axis of the engine lay slightly to one side of its pivot point on the top of the tower. With this configuration the wheel had a natural tendency to furl itself by pivoting to one side whenever the wind struck its face. Perry attached a rudder vane to the back of the motor to keep the wheel facing the wind. It was hinged so that even though the vane always remained true to the wind, the motor was able to swing 90 degrees sideways and furl the wheel.
To prevent continuous furling, Perry attached an adjustable spring, like that on a screen door (but much heavier), between the vane and the motor frame. This prevented the wheel from swinging out of the wind until it reached 30 miles per hour, at which point the wind’s force on the wheel was sufficient to overcome the tension of the spring and the machine swung into the furled position. If the wind speed decreased, the spring would once again pull the wheel back into the wind. This ingenious design was soon adopted by most manufacturers.
Another major innovation in the Aermotor was the elimination of the direct-drive crankshaft, which made one power stroke to the well pump for each revolution of the wheel. Perry devised a strong, simple transmission that allowed the wheel to revolve three-and-a-half turns for every power stroke. This allowed the wheel to extract more energy from light winds and reduced stress on the pump in high winds. Although it developed only about half a horsepower at most, the new Aermotor could do a surprising amount of work. With a 15- to 20-mph wind an 8-foot wheel could pump more than 3,000 gallons of water from a 200foot well in a day. Aermotor production reached 20,000 units annually after just four years, and the company soon grew to dominate the industry.
the ensuing years saw many more improvements made to windmills, chief among them a better system of lubrication. Every mill owner hated the moment when it was time to climb the tower and grease the motor. The chore was supposed to be done about once a week but was usually put off until the noise from dry, squeaky bearings could no longer be ignored. The XIT Ranch in the Texas Panhandle had one well at the bottom of a canyon, and in order to catch the wind its mill stood on a tower 130 feet high. It’s said the XIT ranch hands held a party the day the tower blew down in 1926.
Until late in the nineteenth century most towers were made of wood, but in the early 1890s Aermotor designed an all-steel one that was hinged in the middle and could be tipped over, allowing the engine to be serviced from the ground. Steel towers caught on, but the tipping feature did not. Despite the company’s advertising claims that “a child may tilt it with a fishing line,” operating such a tower was nearly as bothersome as tower climbing. Finally, in 1915, the company redesigned the motor with a sealed gear box that required an oil change only once a year.
The windmill industry reached its peak around 1900. By then more than five and a half million windmills had been sold. A turn-of-the-century Midwesterner was rarely out of sight of at least one. A traveler passing through Colby, Kansas, in 1904 counted 125 windmills from his train window in that one small town alone. Sears, Roebuck published a 118page supplement to its regular catalogue containing nothing but windmills and related items.
The arid high-plains region was the last to be homesteaded. When its ranchers were finished installing windmills, and Midwestern towns and cities built water systems, the market dwindled and the industry went into a slow, steady decline. With the Depression of the 1930s, the windmill business appeared to be headed for extinction. Yet it still hangs on today, though in greatly reduced form.
Dempster Industries has been an industrial mainstay in Beatrice, Nebraska, since it began making windmills there in 1885. Although most of its revenue today comes from the sale of farm machinery, the company still makes wind engines with wheels ranging in size from 6 to 10 feet and towers 22 to 33 feet tall. For a larger machine, up to 16 feet in diameter, you have to go to the Aermotor Corporation. Since its glory days in Chicago, the company has been sold and relocated several times; Aermotor windmills were made by a licensee in Argentina for a few years. Today the company is in San Angelo, Texas; like Dempster, it sells about 500 windmills annually.
How do these two companies find a market today for something that was low-tech sixty years ago? Dean Kilgore, Dempster’s sales manager, explains that there are probably 100,000 old mills still pumping away in the Midwest. Nostalgia aside, in locations miles from power lines, windmills are still the most economical method of extracting water from the ground. In addition to replacement sales, which pick up after severe weather sweeps across the plains, Dempster and Aermotor both have found an active market for windmills among ecology-minded Californians and Floridians. A number of golf courses around the country employ them as an eye-catching way to water greens. Dempster shipped one windmill to a Louisiana customer to aerate the ponds on his catfish farm. The only disappointed customer Dempster has a record of is a farmer in Maine who complained that the wind didn’t blow enough there to turn his windmill more than three or four revolutions a week.
It may seem unlikely that a technology essentially unchanged since the late nineteenth century can still find a useful niche in our modern society—until one stops to realize that regardless of the many advances made by science and industry, no computer-controlled gadget has yet been devised that can pump water cheaply for thirsty cattle ten miles from the nearest power pole, and do it in such a picturesque way. Besides, half of all windmills sold each year are strictly for decoration. There’s just something nice about seeing a big wheel blowing in the wind.