Wind power has been around a long time, ever since some enterprising humans discovered they could use the wind to push something around, man has been using it to do everything from pumping water to travelling the world. Along the way, there have been uses that changed everything; here are 7 of them.

Egypt and Sumeria Use Sailing to Create Civilization

Probably the first most notable use of wind power was in Egypt around 3500 BC. The ancient Egyptians used sails to push their river boats up the Nile against the current, which is good since the wind is typically not at risk of being snatched by a crocodile like an oarsman. Around the same time, Sumerians were using square sails to travel the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. This technology allowed them to expand their sphere of influence in both cases. While the Egyptians were not particularly good at shipbuilding and therefore stuck to the Nile with their ships, the Sumerians were navigating the rivers of the Fertile Crescent and the Persian Gulf, trading with people as far away as Mozambique in eastern Africa. This contributed to the spread of Sumerian society as well as allowing them to import goods that they would otherwise not have access to, improving their overall quality of life compared to neighboring civilizations. (Not to mention start wars with some of them)

Babylon Used Wind Power To Create Its hanging Gardens (Maybe)

Okay, so this one is open to contention, since there are doubts that the hanging gardens even existed or that if they did, they weren’t Babylonian but Assyrian. Controversy aside, the stories say the gardens were 75 feet tall and built on a many-terraced ziggurat (think really old blocky pyramid) that had a novel irrigation system integrated into it to make sure the desert sun and heat didn’t kill the plants. And the prevailing theory is that if it did exist and it was irrigated, then it was likely done by screw or bucket pumps driven by wind power. Don’t get me wrong, that is a lot of “ifs”, but if it’s true, then imagine the people from other lands looking at the amazingly impressive gardens on a proto-pyramid and taking that awesome irrigating technology home with them.

The Ancient Persians Grind Grain and Water Fields

It might have taken some time, but that wonderful, potentially fictional watering system, or simple sailing vessels, inspired the Persians to start using wind power to pump water into their fields and grind grain. It’s pretty easy to see how this would help a civilization, especially one as relatively advanced as the ancient Persians, presumably when they weren’t busy trying to steal Greece from Scottish speaking kings and naked men with spears (I learn most of my history from action movies.) The original windmill used a panemone design, that is to say a vertical pole surrounded by sails that spun when the wind blew. They may have been beaten to the punch by almost 200 years by the Chinese, but while some historic records suggest that maybe the Chinese invented it, there is direct evidence that the Persians absolutely had the technology refined to the point that they were able to use it regularly. This allowed them to irrigate fields far removed from rivers by using underground well water, and as long as you had wind and grain, you could use a mill, so no doubt the mills were located pretty close by. It’s kind of ironic that the part of the world where the economy is almost entirely built around oil developed originally because of wind power.

Ancient Greeks Improve The Windmill Design and Water Their Food

A few hundred years after the Persians perfected the vertical axis design, the Greeks (possibly out of spite over the whole conquering thing. Just my assumption) developed the more familiar forward-facing windmill we see these days. Instead of vertical sails just twisting any which way, they pointed sails designed to grab the wind more directly and pointed them at it, grabbing more power. This became particularly popular on Crete where thousands of windmills were (and still are) used to pump water to irrigate crop fields and provide water for livestock on the Lasithi Plateau. It is believed that they developed the horizontal wind-catcher design based on the existing water-wheel technology that had already been around for some time by then. These new horizontal wind mills led to…

The Dutch Make Windmills More Efficient Still

The “traditional” windmill most of us imagine when we hear the word is the old fashioned Dutch windmill. They were built several stories tall, could be rotated to face the wind directly if direction changed, and came built with everything needed to grind grain, including levels dedicated to storage, chaff removal and living quarters. Imagine living in the factory you work in. These windmills led directly to many of the properties considered important in modern windmills; a wing-like design for maximizing the amount of wind captured while reducing resistance on the leading edge of the blade so a minimum of force is lost as it turns, a nonlinear edge (again, aerodynamics) and improved center of gravity. This design allowed mills to be built, again, miles away from water sources and closer to the resources that needed to be manufactured into goods. Windmills were not only used as wells and grain mills, but also as sawmills, paint factories and even for grinding powders for dyes and paints. Much later, in America, the water-pumping windmill was refined further into the light metal versions seen on farms all over the midwest. This allowed people to pump water wherever they could find an underground cistern and helped provide water for steam locomotives, which assisted in both westward expansion and the industrialization of America, which still has global repercussions today.

Back To Sails, Western Culture Took Over The World On The Wind

Probably the single most influential use of wind power ever was on galleons and mast-ships during the Age of Discovery. Let’s face it, without wind power, there would have been no Age of Discovery. As a result, Western influence spread around the world. Eastern spices and silks were spread far and wide. Exploration of the Pacific, Africa and the Americas rode on wind power, with the world’s coastlines being accurately mapped from wind-blown ships. The unfortunate Triangular Trade that forged America and the Caribbean islands was driven entirely by ships, as was the prolific whale hunting that flourished in the northern seas. All of the great explorers travelled by wind, from Magellan to Columbus. Sailing vessels also brought the Conquistadors to Mexico, which had a pretty profound influence on that region, even to today. (In case you were asleep in class that day, the Spaniards destroyed and enslaved the native Aztec culture) Everything from trade to war rode on ships. Europeans invaded, er, “settled” every piece of land they found, including India, Australia, South America, North America, South Africa, all changed significantly and irrevocably because Europeans had perfected capturing the wind to push a boat through water, and technology that at the time was a few thousand years old.

At The Turn Of The 20th Century, Windpower Evolves

So for millennia, mankind used the wind to grind, pump and sail in various forms all over the world. Then, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when we were discovering this electricity stuff could be used to move and light things, we discovered wind power’s true calling; cheap, efficient electricity. The first example was from a Scotsman named Professor James Blythe; he made a cloth windmill and hooked it up to a turbine which he then used to power lights in his cottage. He was smart enough to patent the idea. Later, an American named Charles Brush developed his own electric windmill which he used to power his house and laboratory for over a decade, possibly complaining about a lack of anything on TV, or more likely, it’s lack of existence. In the 1890s, a Danish scientist named Poul la Cour built wind turbines that not only generated electricity, but used electrolysis to split water into hydrogen and oxygen for fuel and… wait a second… This has been around since the nineteenth century? Why are we still using coal, at all? Anyway, he is also the man that discovered that fewer blades on a windmill produced more efficient results and therefore more electricity. By 1956, a student of la Cour, Johannes Juul, built the first three-bladed windmill which was the direct ancestor of modern windmills. As a result, we are now looking more and more into using wind power to replace fossil fuels for our power needs, which will clean up the air and make life a lot less awful for generations to come. And it all started in Sumeria because ancient people needed to transport goods and walking across the desert was harder than inventing world-changing technology.  

Header Image Credit: Håkan Dahlström Egypt Phot0 Credit: zoonabar Babylon Photo Credit: luisvilla Persia Photo Credit: kanjiroushi Greek Windmill Photo Credit: Wolfgang Staudt Dutch Windmill Photo Credit: Punxsutawnerphil Mast Ship Photo Credit: Andy Farrington Modern Windmill Photo Credit: Colin park