Today, a look at the hi-tech behind a bucolic
scene. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people
whose ingenuity created them.
Writer Bill George shows an
arresting photo from the 1893
Chicago World's Fair. A forest of windmills
crowds around a small lagoon. The 1893 World's Fair
danced with new miracles: elevators, moving
sidewalks, motion pictures, every form of harnessed
electricity -- and the world's first Ferris wheel.
Yet the windmill exhibit was as popular and
spectacular as anything there. It spoke to
fundamental need. Our huge flat heartland had few
electric wires and fewer falling streams.
If power technology in Nebraska didn't mean
steam-engines in 1893, it had to mean windmills.
And few places in the American outback had steam
We'd started out building Dutch-style mills in the
East. But winds on the Great Plains were less
friendly to large slow-turning sails. The sails
would speed up and tear to pieces.
A mill repairer, John Burnham, went to a shop boss,
Daniel Halladay, in the early 1850s. He said, "If
you can design a windmill that'll protect itself in
high winds, I can sell it."
Halladay and Burnham built a fine Rube Goldberg. It
had a centrifugal governor and blades that folded
in sectors as the wind rose. It worked well enough,
but New England didn't like it.
So they took it to Chicago -- our gateway to the
West. Halladay windmills were soon pumping water
for cattle, steam locomotives, and irrigation. They
set up the U.S. Wind Engine Company to meet
After the Civil War, a missionary -- Leonard
Wheeler -- wanted a cheaper and simpler windmill
for the Ojibwa Indians in Wisconsin. Wheeler and
his son patented a new windmill in 1867.
A controller simply turned the guide vane in winds
over 30 mph. The blades lined up with the wind and
stopped spinning. The Wheelers set up the Eclipse
Wind Engine Company. They went into competition
with U.S. Wind and a host of imitators.
So U.S. Wind hired an engineer, Thomas Perry, to
rethink the theory of windmill design. He reshaped
the blades. He simplified the shut-off controller.
Perry gave us the clean, efficient design we see
all over America today. He called it the Aermotor.
But making it meant retooling. U.S. Wind rejected
the Aermotor. Perry had to go out and find another
company to produce it. When he did, the American
farm windmill was finally done.
Perry's Aermotor seems hidden in that forest of
windmills at the 1893 Fair. But I can spot it.
After all, that neat design went on to become an
icon of my childhood. I used to think it was as
organic as the cornfields around it. I'd almost
rather not know -- that it was the end of 40 years
of hi-tech engineering.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
George, B., Reaping the Wind. American Heritage
of Invention & Technology, Vol. 8, No. 3,
Winter, 1993, pp. 8-14.
For a look at a number of historic windmills, see: http://www.spearman.org/windmillhistory.html
Photo by John Lienhard
A typical Perry-type windmill used for watering
cattle in Eastern Montana
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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