19 Interesting Dutch Windmill Facts (Fully Explained)

May 15, 2021

Windmills are probably one of the most recognizable symbols of the Netherlands, and rightfully so! There are over 1200 windmills all over the country. Every year, many tourists come to the Netherlands specifically to visit the windmills. Some of the most impressive mills can be found at the Kinderdijk and the Zaanse Schans, and many more of course!

But the windmills are not just pretty to look at, they have also played a huge role in Dutch history. So it is not a surprise that there are many fascinating things to tell about them. Interested? Well, then you should most definitely continue reading this article about "Dutch windmill facts".

1. The first Dutch windmill was built in 1221

Nowadays, the Dutch are famous for their windmills, and they started building them really early! The first windmill was built in the year 1221, right in the middle of the middle ages. This windmill was built in the rural town of Willemskerke, but sadly enough this place was flooded and nothing is left of this impressive building.

The oldest windmill in the Netherlands that is still intact is the "Grafelijke Korenmolen" in Zeddam. This mill was built in 1441.

2. The Dutch were not the first to build windmills

Although windmills are currently synonymous with the Netherlands, the Dutch did not invent these machines. The first windmills were made in ancient China. There is evidence that the Chinese already built windmills in 1000 BC!

The ancient Persians "stole" this idea and started using them from the 6th century onward. These windmills were vertical instead of horizontal and were used to pump water out of the ground.

Many people believe that crusaders brought the idea of windmills to Europe during the middle ages, but recent research has shown that the Europeans developed their windmills individually. The first European windmill was built in Belgium in 1040.

3. Windmills were originally used to grind grains

Grain has been a staple of the human diet since the invention of agriculture. But eating the raw product is not really an option for most people. So humans discovered that they could bake bread from it.

In order to achieve this, the grains have to be grinded and crushed into a fine powder. Before windmills, this process included the crushing of the grain with a heavy rock.

Making flour was very, very labor-intensive. So, once people noticed the wind could move things, they invented the windmill. The rotary motion of the windmill’s blades is used to move a stone. This stone is grinding against another stone, and grain is placed in between. In this way, flour could be made in no time.

4. Windmills in the Netherlands were used to reclaim land

The Dutch have a fitting proverb to describe the landscape of their country, "it’s as flat as a pancake". There are quite some reasons why this country is so flat. Many parts of the country are made up of sediment from one of the many rivers that flow through these lands. These rivers have formed a delta in the south and function as the main gateway to the European inland for many ships.

Because of the way this landscape came to be, a big part of the Netherlands was underwater. One of the best tools they invented to battle the sea was the windmill. The Dutch invented a way to use the windmill to power a big pump. They used this to make the famous Dutch polders.

The process of building a polder is quite simple. You first wall off a piece of land you want to reclaim with some dykes. After that, you build one or more windmills to pump all the water out of the polder. After a few months, you will have created new land.

The Dutch have used this tactic everywhere in the country, contributing to the presence of windmills and dykes in the Dutch landscape.

5. Blades of windmills can be adapted to the weather

Most of the (historical) Dutch windmills have very similar blades. They mostly consist of big frames. Back when these windmills were designed, this design was chosen because of the Dutch weather. Winds can blow quite hard in the Netherlands.

This frame-like structure makes sure the blades have some flexibility, and cannot be blown off by a strong wind. But, it is not always windy of course. Sometimes the wind just blows softly, but the work still had to continue. Grain still had to be grinded and polders still had to be pumped dry.

To battle this problem the Dutch thought up of a great solution, they started to cover the blades in big cloths. This allowed the blades to catch a lot more wind. Today, this tradition is continued occasionally.

6. Windmills were once used as a means of communication

Sometimes, it is hard to fully comprehend the fact that people in the past could not communicate as easily as we can today. People had to be quite creative in order to tell each other what was going on.

In order to communicate quickly and efficiently, millers had created a certain code. By placing the blades of the mill in a certain position, they could quickly communicate various things. There was, for example, a certain position to show that the miller was on vacation or when the miller was grieving.

Some of these positions are still being used nowadays, like the festive position, which is used on special occasions like a wedding or on Dutch King's day.

7. Windmills played an essential role during the second world war

The second world war was a terrible event. The Netherlands had a lot of trouble during this time. Germany had invaded and occupied the Netherlands. During the invasion, windmills were used as a warning sign. Using the blades, millers and armies could inform the region of a coming German assault. Sadly enough, this did not help in defending the Netherlands, and the Germans still managed to invade the country.

8. There is not just one type of windmill

Although it is quite easy to imagine all windmills being the same, this is not true at all! Across the Netherlands, there are many different types. Because mills can be used for many different things, like grinding grain or pumping a polder dry, there are also many different designs. But the environment also plays a big role. Some windmills had to be built differently to make better use of the winds in that area.

There were also different types of materials used to built windmills in the Netherlands, some are made of stone, others of wood. Currently, there are over 14 different types of windmills in the Netherlands.

9. The Netherlands also has a lot of modern windmills

Although the historical windmills are the most iconic, the Netherlands also has many modern ones. When driving around the country, it is almost impossible not to see one. Although there is quite some controversy regarding them, they are quite popular. They are placed on land, but there are also a lot of windmills in the North Sea.

Because of this, it is quite logical that a large part of Dutch renewable energy comes from windmills. From the 21,8 billion kW renewable energy produced in the Netherlands, 49 percent is from windmills! This does not mean that most energy used in the Netherlands is from climate-friendly sources though. Countrywide, 111 billion kW is used yearly.

10. The highest windmill in the world is built in the Netherlands

Although this is a modern windmill, it is absolutely massive. This machine is almost 245 meters (803 ft) high! This huge thing was built by the American multinational company General Electric in the harbor of Rotterdam. It was built as a test that, if successful, allows the company to build even higher windmills in the future.

To put the sheer size of this enormous rotating tower of steel into perspective, let’s compare the size of a few parts. Each of the blades is 100 meters (328 ft) long, which is about as long as a football field. The tower is higher than the Big Ben, the Tower of Pisa, and the Arc de Triomphe stacked on each other. The turbine produces 12 mw, which is enough to power 16,000 European households! This thing clearly means business.

The testing period started in 2019 and would last for 5 years, meaning the machine will be removed in 2024. If all the tests end up being successful, we might see wind farms fully consisting of these giants being built, which could provide energy for up to one million households.

11. Many Dutch windmills are on the UNESCO world heritage list

With the many windmills in the Netherlands, it is also no surprise that some of them are considered world heritage sites by UNESCO. The famous "Kinderdijk" is an example of this. This is a dyke completely filled with picturesque windmills, and most certainly worth a visit.

The Beemster region is also a world heritage site. Famous for its cheese, this big polder has 43 windmills in it. UNESCO made sure these places will be protected for future generations to see by making them world heritage sites.

12. The Dutch have a national mill day

The idea that windmills make up such a big part of the Dutch national identity, is only reinforced by the fact that the Dutch have a national day to celebrate them. This always takes place on a weekend, and during these days the windmills are open to visitors. In the mills, you can exactly see how they work and how they’re built. It is a great day to go out and visit one. National Mill Day is usually held in the month of May.

13. Many Dutch proverbs mention windmills

It might not surprise you, but windmills have also been fully absorbed into the Dutch language. Windmills have been around for a long time, and therefore many proverbs regarding them have come into existence. Here are a few examples.

"Een klap van de molen gekregen hebben" (to be hit by a windmill). Generally used when someone is not that clever.

"Niet alle molenaars zijn dieven" (not every miller is a theif). This refers to the fact that in the past, many millers also had quite shady side hustles. Being a miller did not earn very well, so they tried to earn some extra money here and there.

"Zonder wind kan een molen niet draaien" (a windmill does not work without wind). Something always needs something to work. Humans need food, water, and oxygen to function and without money, a bank is just a very fancy waiting room.

14. There are roughly 1000 historic windmills in the Netherlands

Windmills have been around for a long time, and during their history, the Dutch have built a significant amount of them. They have made much labor a lot easier. Many of these historic windmills have survived. Around the country, there are roughly 1000 windmills left, which is even more impressive considering the size of the Netherlands.

There are more than two times the amount of modern windmills, though. With 2000 wind turbines, it is very possible to see a modern and a historic windmill not that far from each other.

15. There are a lot of windmills in urban areas

The Netherlands might still have a lot of historic buildings, but a lot has changed since they were built. One of the big developments that are constantly taking place in this country is the growth of cities. Many people move to the cities, to find work, to study or simply because they like the abundance of facilities available there.

This process has been taking place for many years. Windmills were usually built in the countryside, but as cities grew, they started to get swallowed by the cities. Nowadays there are many beautiful historic windmills in the middle of city centers.

16. Some of the historic windmills are still being used for drainage

Many technological advancements have been made in the past few centuries. The world is not the same as it was when most historic windmills were built.

But despite that, some of the old windmills still function. Many newer, more efficient ways to grind grain and saw wood have been invented, but some of the old windmills still remain very efficient at draining polders. Quite some of them still play a central role in keeping the Netherlands dry.

17. Windmills only got out of use after diesel engines and electric motors were invented

Windmills have been around for quite a long time, and therefore might seem like they would have gotten out of use quite quickly, but throughout history, windmills have been used for a very long time. Only after the invention of diesel engines and electric motors, many industries had better alternatives. Before that, windmills were the most efficient option available.

18. Most Dutch windmills can turn the directions of the blades

Windmills can be found all across Europe. But, there are quite some differences between European windmills. But the Dutch found a way to make their windmills unique.

The weather often changes in the Netherlands, and so does the direction of the wind. In order to make the windmills more efficient, the Dutch designed their windmills in such a way, that the top of the mill can turn. In this way, the blades can catch wind no matter the direction the wind is coming from. And, the more a mill can work, the more it produces, and the more the miller earns!

19. Windmills fueled the Dutch “Golden Age”

The 17th century was a special time for the Netherlands. During this time, the Netherlands was the dominant country in the western world. It traded with many countries, sold spices from all over the world. But there were negative things about this period as well though, like slavery. All these things made the Netherlands very rich during this time.

In order to do a lot of trading, you need a big fleet. To have a big fleet, you need a lot of boats, which are made of wood. During this time, the Dutch found a way to turn the windmill's rotary motion into an up and down movement used for sawing.

These new developments allowed the Dutch to make a lot of ships very fast. It could be argued, that without windmills, the Dutch golden age would not have happened.

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Conclusion

Windmills have been very essential throughout Dutch history, and even today. There were many ways the windmills have benefitted people living in the Netherlands, be it by grinding grains, sawing wood, or making land.

The Netherlands still uses windmills a lot today. Many modern turbines have been placed, and many Dutch citizens make use of the electricity produced by them every day.

Not all windmills are the same, the more you look into it, the more there is to windmills. This list with "facts about windmills in the Netherlands" is just the tip of the iceberg. There are many more differences between all the different windmills around the Netherlands.

Some windmills have served as a shelter during the second world war, others might have played a role in specific regional events. Because of this, each historic windmill has its own story and makes each windmill worth visiting.

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Written by

Leo van den Berg
As a Dutchman I am extremely proud of the beautiful country in which I live. My goal is to convey my passion and love for the Netherlands to as many people as possible.

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