It is a well-known phrase that Egypt is the Gift of the Nile. This got me thinking about other places that may not have existed, or thrived to the degree they do, if something essential to their existence was missing. One such example is the Netherlands which can be considered the gift of the windmills. These beautiful wooden structures dot the landscape and are as quintessentially Dutch as tulips or even Gouda Cheese.
The Netherlands is built on land that is below sea level and is made up of wetland, swamps, and marshes. In the Middle Ages, Netherlands was constantly getting flooded causing entire villages to get washed away. To make the land habitable it had to be drained. Reclaiming the land from the sea required the work of many generations of Dutch people.
The land was first surrounded by dykes and dams, and then water was drained out of this land. To do this, the Dutch used windmills which harnessed wind energy and allowed them to reclaim land from the sea. The reclaimed land is known as polder, and the windmills that did this work are called Polder mills. These mills are built with strong oak timber frames – some of them have been standing since they were originally built in the 1600s.
The Polder windmills used wind power to turn an Archimedes screw or a water scoop wheel which rotated and lifted water up and over the dyke. The top of the windmill is a cap like structure to which the large fan blades are attached. The entire cap section can be rotated so it can be moved according to the direction of the wind, which in turn rotates the fan blades. The fan is linked to a wooden beam inside the windmill – when the fan rotates, the beam rotates which in turn causes the massive screw or wheel to rotate and lift water out of the ground. This is how windmills were to increase the size of the country – today, Netherlands is double the size it was in 1600.
As mill technology increased, wind energy was used to do many jobs that previously required manual labor. One direct impact of this technology was the ability to efficiently cut large pieces of timber such as those used for shipbuilding – this led to the Dutch Golden Age of economic prosperity in the 17th century.
So like the Nile River, the windmills of Netherlands are a gift that allowed it to thrive and become a global powerhouse in the 17th century.