The Netherlands is a land of windmills. There are thousands of them throughout the country and they played a crucial role in The Netherlands’ rise towards the end of the Middle Ages.

Waging war with the water

Much of The Netherlands is a flat coastal plain below or close to sea level. Inland, the soil is mostly peat, which provided a perfect source of fuel. But digging out the peat bogs only lowered the land level further, meaning that villages were often destroyed by floods. In St. Elizabeth’s Flood of 1421, 72 villages were washed away and thousands drowned. From the 1200s, small windmills had been used to grind corn, but in the early 15th century, they were adapted to help with draining land.

Early wind technology

To use windmills for drainage, a dike was built around a lake. A windmill was built on top of it and on the other side of the dike was a canal. The first recorded drainage mill was built at Alkmaar in 1408. The energy from its wind-powered sails turned a scoop-wheel that was lined with wooden blades. These blades scooped water out of the lake before dropping it into the canal. In the following three centuries, hundreds of windmills were built to drain numerous lakes and small arms of the sea.

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