The Windmill

Wind and water are traditional prime movers, strong natural forces able to change nature without any human interference. During the era of Holocene, human civilization developed and thrived. Cultivating the land humans started to change it and explore the natural forces, domesticating them for their own purposes. The windmill technology shows how human ingenuity ever since Antiquity has been able to acquire almost perpetual energy from a natural source.

A Dutch style windmill on an open field can be seen for miles. Its four large sail clad wings proudly capture the wind, producing energy to create mechanical force, facilitating hard work tasks. In medieval agrarian societies and up to the early 19th century, the windmill was a sign of prosperity. When industrialization arrived the traditional windmill was made almost obsolete, and thermal energy from burning fossil fuel took precedence as prime mover. During both world wars there was a shortage of fuel and wind technology was once more explored, only to be discarded when fuel was again plenty. The great oil crisis created a renaissance in the early 1970’s and the technology has steadily evolved since then.

The old-fashioned picturesque windmill cannot solve the need for a constant flow of energy and modern engineering has refined the relatively simple technology to something more effective making the most of exploiting the environmental forces. This evolution allows for large parks of giant turbines transforming the kinetics of wind to humanity’s ever increasing need for electricity.

It also evokes an almost unsolvable dilemma, exposing an issue of the Anthropocene as described by Zalasiewic; this period has broken down the Cartesian dualism between nature and society, resulting in a deep intertwining of the fates of nature and humankind. Nature might appear captured and tamed but the environmental impact is not yet fully understood. When concerning wind turbines placed on open fields or out in the ocean, the basic knowledge of impact is almost absent today.

Another poignant issue is the way humans react when things lose their human scale turning to high-tech. The traditional windmill was a real threat for Don Quijote, but today we see it in the light of nostalgia. The large vistas of wind turbines, planted in the Anthropocene landscape like a new breed of giant one legged birds constantly rotating their wings, evokes conflicting emotions though. Are they visually polluting our landscapes and disturbing nature’s ecosystems, or can they be seen as a vision of sublime technical invention helping humankind to sustainable energy?

In the on-going search for reliable supplies of energy many are reluctant to problematize a source that doesn’t produce waste and is considered environmental friendly. Others query the technology, afraid that the long-term effects on the surrounding landscape and those who live there are not thoroughly examined. When considering that things are getting out of hand, humanity tends to follow Don Quijote, feeling a need to confront any giant intruders. Whether true or imagined doesn’t matter, our quest is to react and call in question to fully investigate the impact of future technologies on global society.

Photographs: Magdalena Midtgaard
Merging and manipulation courtesy of Martin Midtgaard.


I am a paper & book conservator at the Royal Library in Copenhagen. Currently I am working on a net based master degree in intellectual history .