It has been said that the skyline of a Free State dorpie is hardly complete without the spire of an NG Kerk. It might also be said that the vista of a Free State farmland is equally incomplete without a windmill. Our photograph this week, taken by Fred Beck of Gauteng, depicts this much loved icon of the veld, adorned in a profusion of summer cosmos.
The concept of harnessing the energy of wind is an ancient one. The Sea People of ancient times discovered its almost magical powers by catching wind in rudimentary sails to propel sea vessels, a skill later perfected by the Phoenicians. Some historians claim evidence that the ancient Persians and Egyptians in Biblical times used wind to turn crude bladed wheels for various purposes. Solid evidence exists that the Persians were the original engineers of the earliest forms of the vertical windmill, and these were in extensive use from about the 7th century AD.
Britain and Europe lagged behind, still using animals to turn wheels and cogs, but the Christian Crusaders changed this from around the 12th century AD. During their religious occupation of the Middle and Near East regions they encountered new technologies that they took back to Europe. Among these was the windmill.
While windmill technology was used in Europe and Britain for centuries, particularly for water drainage in the Netherlands and East Anglia, it was in North America that the windmill of today was born. Vast tracts of land with little or no surface water could be opened up and farmed simply by sinking a borehole into an underground water source and bringing the water to the surface by means of wheel, cog and pump – all driven by the wind.
Australia quickly caught onto this technology and, by the late 19th century, was producing competitive metal tower windmills that could pump large volumes of water very quickly and at variable wind speeds. After World War II a successful Australian manufacturer of windmills set up a distribution office, and later a manufacturing plant, in Bloemfontein. And so Southern Cross Windmills came to the Free State.
This successful enterprise has erected windmills across our country for seventy odd years. They are also distributors of the British designed Climax Windmill, manufactured by Stewarts and Lloyds in the old Transvaal since the 1940s.
While South Africa’s windmill industry barely faltered during the era of the fossil fuel engine of the 20th century, America and even Australia have seen significant decline in interest in wind driven borehole water pumps, favouring diesel or electrically powered pumps. But the pendulum has reached its zenith; interest in wind energy is once again on the increase, with prospects of a new era in wind pumping.
But could we ever take to colossal fields of giant wind turbines like we take to a solitary windmill on the open veld? It will be sad indeed if our traditional windmills’ days are numbered, crowded out by more efficient, more multi-purpose, synthetic-looking intruders on the landscape.
There is something ancient and enduring about the character of our solitary windmill. Its soft mechanical clanks are the voice of reassurance on a dry and brittle veld. It draws to its flanks the thirsty herds that, once quenched, are content to mill around its slender shade. Rural women follow the well-worn path to its reliable supply of water, as women have done for thousands of years, gathering at wells in parched and dusty lands, to fill containers, to gossip and to linger.
Most engineers, economists, and social and environmental specialists would agree that the windmill, or wind pump, has played one of the most significant roles in developing countries, especially in their more arid regions. Completely independent of either fuel or electricity, it has enabled communities to live, and even thrive, in areas that might otherwise have been barely habitable. The windmill probably remains the most effective and economical machine ever to have been invented.