The Windmill: A Medieval ‘Steam Engine’?
By John Langdon (University of Alberta)
Paper given at the Epstein Memorial Conference: Technology and Human Capital Formation in the East and West (2008)
The paper uses as its jumping-off point the mission statement for this conference, in which it stated one of Larry Epstein’s strong beliefs that ‘technological development before the Industrial Revolution was a cumulative process of micro-innovation produced by numerous anonymous craftsmen, rather than a sequence of macro invention typified by the steam engine and associated with celebrated men like Newcomen and Watt. Looking at the totality of medieval technology as a whole, I would agree that improvements for the most part often followed this piecemeal development. Exceptions to this rule – that there were notable cases of macro invention that dramatically transformed the material, social and even political basis of medieval society – have tended to be speculative in nature or more characteristic of the change from medieval to modern, such as the introduction of gunpowder weapons and printing.
But there is at least one striking example of a notable medieval technological innovation, first evident in the late twelfth century, that was as spectacular in its way as any up to, say, the start of the nineteenth century. This is the case of the post windmill that came to dominate many parts of lowland northwest Europe. Here was an ‘invention’ by some anonymous craftsperson (or possibly a group of them), the dissemination of which was easily as rapid as gunpowder weaponry and printing and arguably was as important to medieval people as the inventions pf Newcomen and Watt would eventually be up to the nineteenth century, hence I have ventured the idea that metaphorically speaking, the windmill might be considered as a ‘steam engine’ for the middle ages.