Purposes of Windmills in the 1800s

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Some uses of windmills still common today were developed or refined in the 1800s.
Some uses of windmills still common today were developed or refined in the 1800s. (Image: Thomas Northcut/Photodisc/Getty Images)

With the cost of oil and its future availability being a concern to many people, alternative energy sources are constantly being scrutinized for their viability for the needs of current and future generations. In recent years, wind power had drawn much interest; wind power, however, has been in use for centuries. The 1800s were arguably the heyday of the windmill, a time when they were used for numerous purposes.

Grinding Grain

Windmills were first used many centuries ago to help grind grain, and they still were being used for that task in the 1800s. Such windmills had sails attached to a vertical shaft, which in turn was attached to a grinding stone; as the sails turned the stone, the grain was ground.

Providing Industrial Power

Large windmills were a primary source of power well into the 1800s, until the arrival of the steam engine during the Industrial Age. Water-related uses included drawing from wells, irrigating farmland and draining wetlands; windmills also were in vogue at sawmills and in factories where products such as spices, dyes and tobaccos were produced. Even with the rise of the steam engine, however, there still was interest in windmills as a source of industrial power, and large multibladed windmills -- a precursor to the behemoth wind turbines that have arisen in recent years -- were developed in the United States as an alternate means of providing power on a large scale.

Going Westward

The locomotives of the 1800s had steam engines, but those engines, which were instrumental in paving the way west in the United States, would have been of little use in some parts of the country where there was little water to produce the stream. In such areas, windmills were used to pump the water that kept those trains running. The windmills, which were placed at regular intervals to help power the trains, also provided water to slake the thirst of settlers on their way to the West.

Farm Aid

While windmills were still popular for large-scale uses in the 1800s, it was the windmills at individual farms that may have had the biggest impact on that time period. Windmills long had been used for power and water needs on a smaller scale, but models developed in the mid-19th century brought new efficiencies that made them more viable and valuable, particularly in rural areas. Designs from circa 1850, in fact, are still in use today, and more than 6 million smaller windmills -- quite often delivering one horsepower or less -- have been installed in the United States alone since that time.

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