How humans historically harnessed wind

Wind power predates the industrial turbine by hundreds of years...
07 June 2022

Interview with 

Andrew White, Burwell Museum


Burwell Windmill


We've been using wind to generate electricity for over a century, but for thousands of years, and of course long before electricity became our energy currency, wind power was still a staple. Back then, our forebears used it to move water and to grind grain. Julia took a trip to Burwell museum and windmill in Cambridgeshire to hear how...

Andrew - Welcome. My name is Andrew. I am the head of the mill team at Burwell Museum, and we are in charge of maintaining, preserving and operating Steven's Windmill Burwell, which is the last working corn mill in the village. She's 200 years old and I have been working with her for the last eight years.

Julia - Wow. Well, she looks good for 200 years old. How high is the windmill?

Andrew - The main tower is approximately 50 feet and each sail is about 35 feet long. We get nearly a hundred feet by the time you get to the tip of the topmost sail.

Julia - Wow. It's big.

Andrew - Yes. This land has been called Millfield since the 1200s. We have found evidence of windmills dating back to the 1300s.

Julia - So, we've been using wind power all that time.

Andrew - Yes. There has been wind power used in this village for at least 700 years.

Julia - Let's go inside. I'd love to see how that mechanism works.

Andrew - We call this the great spur wheel. It's the largest diameter wheel in the whole building. It is the penultimate gear before the stones. It turns free stone nuts, which then turn the free pairs of stones above. This mill, when it was built, was capable of grinding three different meal; flour, rye, barley, and also had a grain cleaner and a sieving machine to produce white flour.

Julia - All of those different contraptions, are they powered by the wind?

Andrew - All can be powered by the wind, yes. All powered by gears coming down from different gearing and different take-off drives.

Julia - Am I allowed up here? Oh my goodness. This is a steep staircase.

Andrew - This is the most important floor in the mill. This is what we call the stone floor. It is also here that you can see our principle secondary drive, what we call the crown wheel, which was the wind powered drive that drives the auxiliary machinery, including the grain cleaners and the white flower machine, which we call the dresser.

Andrew - (Tapping noise) So, you can hear that noise. That's the shoe, which is rattled by a large lump of metal projecting out of the stone called a mace. That rattling gently feeds grain into the eye of the stone and is then drawn through by the motion of the stones which, in a scissoring action, cuts the grain open and releases the flour. Then it comes through to the shoot which takes it down to the ground floor. In the Victorian period, we had four corn mills in the village alongside countless small drainage mills which assisted in draining the fens. There were many examples of wind power being used for different purposes. We were a corn grinding mill. They also had pumping mills and they also had mills that ground fertiliser for the local farms.

Julia - We're really making the use of the windy area that we live in.

Andrew - Almost certainly. We still use wind power to operate and we are very pleased that we can do that.


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