Old, Weird Tech: Homemade Windmill

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There's nothing I love more in green tech history than the tradition of homemade windmills that sprung up in the Platte River Valley of Nebraska during the last couple decades of the 19th century.

We know a lot about it thanks to Erwin Barbour, a dinosaur fossil hunter, who became obsessed with finding and cataloging the different types that sprung up in the little, dry towns of the Plains. He wrote a report called Wells and Windmills of Nebraska, which was published in 1899. Here's how he described their construction:

Old wire, bolts, nails, screws, and other odds and ends of hardware, old lumber, poles, and braces such as are common to every farm, enter largely into construction. Even neglected mowers, reapers, and planters, old buggies, and wagons contribute material... The farmer who is inventive enough to build a mill is competent to see quickly the adaptability of certain parts to his ideas. It is this use of old and neglected material which is particularly recommended in this connection, for in making a mill of low efficiency, such as most homemade mills are, cheapness is the main object. Many mills have cost nothing whatever. Others cost $1, $2, and $3 and occasionally as much as $50, $75, and even $150... The writer considers $3 a liberal allowance for everything needed on an ordinary farm for the construction of a strong, satisfactory, and lasting mill...

I stumbled on the report in the course of my research, but I wasn't the first. The Farallones Institute, one of the most interesting alternative science and ecology groups to spring up in the 1970s, republished Barbour's original report. Then, J. Baldwin, an alternative technologist who found this early maker culture as fascinating as I do, published a blurb about it in the Whole Earth Catalog.

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Barbour's report has plenty of odd photos, like the one below.

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But the photo at the top of the page is the only high-resolution picture of a homemade mill that I've found. We can thank the Farm Services Administration for it. Photographer John Vachon took it in October 1938. Here's another from that set.

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To my eye, this mill looks like it falls into the "battle ax" category. Here's what Barbour had to say about those machines:

In its simpler form this mill consists of a tower for the support of a horizontal axis and crank, to which arms are attached bearing at their extremities fan-like blades, which have a real or fancied resemblance to a battle-ax; hence the name.

Justification for this is found in the fact that the arms -- which are the handles -- each carry a fan, shaped in some instances like a battle-ax. It is certain that their keen edges cleave the air in a belligerent fashion. When viewed from the side an optical illusion is produced, and these revolving blades seem to be slashing wildly at space in opposite directions. However, they fight their way through, and are victorious mills, worthy of praise.

And why was all this important? Well, the people who built these mills might have died or been forced to move back east without the water they could pump from shallow aquifers underground.

"It was the acre or two of ground irrigated by the windmill that enabled the homesteader to hold on when all others had to leave," wrote plains historian Walter Prescott Webb. "It made the difference between starvation and livelihood."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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