Posted by: Nic Butler, Ph.D. | 7 January 2014

Windmills in Early South Carolina

In recent weeks there has been much talk in the Charleston media about Clemson University’s new wind turbine testing facility at the old Charleston Navy Base. According to published reports, the high-tech facility is the world’s largest test bed for giant turbines designed to convert off-shore ocean winds into electricity. Its formal opening in November 2013 represents not just an important industry milestone for Clemson and Charleston County, but also a bold leap for the development of sustainable “clean energy” in South Carolina.

Detail from Zyl, Theatrum Machinarum Universale (1734)

Detail from Zyl, Theatrum Machinarum Universale (1734)

But wind-powered technology is not new to South Carolina. In fact, wind-powered machinery arrived in the Lowcountry along with some of the earliest settlers, as early as the 1680s. History records that several English and French Huguenot immigrants were granted land here on condition that they build windmills. In the early 1700s, Dutch engineers were recruited to South Carolina specifically to construct wind-powered sawmills, which were among the most technologically advanced machines in existence at the time. In eighteenth-century South Carolina, a number of windmills stood along our coastline from Cape Romain to Edisto Island, and several were located on the Charleston peninsula. Since these mills were principally used to saw timber, one could rightly say that windmills helped to build Charleston. The advent of steam-powered machinery in the early 1800s led to the rapid abandonment of wind power in South Carolina, however, and windmills became just another picturesque Lowcountry memory by the time of the Civil War.

One of the treasures in the Charleston Archive is a copy of Jan Zyl’s book, Theatrum Machinarum Universale; Of Groot Algemeen Moolen-Boek, Behelzende de Beschryving en Afbeeldingen van allerhande soorten van Moolens, der zelver Opstallen, en Gronden (“Great Universal Mill Book, Containing Descriptions and Illustrations of All Kinds of Mills, Their Elevations, and Plans”), which was published in Amsterdam in December 1734. Intended as a guide for the construction of various types of Dutch windmills, Zyl’s book contains instructions (in Dutch) and 61 meticulously engraved plates that offer visual testimony of the complexity of these ancient machines and of the ingenuity of their builders. In the near future we hope to digitize the entire book and share it with the public, but first the old book will need some repairs and conservation in order to stabilize it for future generations.

Want to learn more about Lowcountry windmill history and hear more about Zyl’s 1734 illustrations? You’re invited to join me for a free program, titled “Windmills in Early South Carolina,” at the Charleston County Public Library on Thursday, January 30th 2014 at 6 p.m. Please feel free to download and share the following flyer:

windmill flyer

Time: Thursday, January 30th 2014 at 6 p.m.

Place: Charleston County Public Library Auditorium, 68 Calhoun Street, 29401.

For more information, please contact Dr. Nic Butler at butlern[at]ccpl.org or 843–805–6968.

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