Windmills in the Background:

A Fine Arts-Facilitated Discussion on Wind Power, Past and Future

Created by Jane Stewart

James Hamilton (Irish American, 1819-1878), Snow Storm with Figure, undated (before 1875). Oil on canvas, 18″ H x 24″ W x 2″ D. Bequest of Vincent L. Bradford (U1884.1.5)

Teaching from the Perspective of Environmental Studies

James Hamilton

In the context of climate change and the global need for reliable alternatives to fossil fuels wind power is becoming a topic of increasing interest. While discussion of wind power has only recently reached the mainstream among the current general public in the U.S., this “alternative energy” has been used in various forms and to various purposes for at least a thousand years.

The purpose of this lesson is:

  • To provide a very brief historical context for the kind of wind power depicted in two works from the Washington and Lee University Collection of Art and History,
  • To discuss the various forces ̶ economic, social, and cultural ̶ that directed the role and fate of windmills like those in the paintings,
  • To examine how the cultural moments surrounding these windmills are represented in the paintings themselves.

It is also the intention that these historical snapshots will facilitate discussion of what the future of wind power might look like, and how these same forces might serve to encourage, or discourage, its adoption as a mainstream alternative to fossil fuels in the decades to come.

James Hamilton (Irish American, 1819-1878), Snow Storm with Figure, undated (before 1875). Oil on canvas, 18″ H x 24″ W x 2″ D. Bequest of Vincent L. Bradford (U1884.1.5)

James Hamilton was born in Entrien, Ireland in 1819, but moved to Philadelphia with his family when he was 15 years old. He is reputed to have been an admirer of English artist J.M.W. Turner, and in 1854 he traveled to England to study Turner’s work first–hand. This painting, which shows a traditional English windmill in the background, was likely a product of this trip.

The design of the traditional English windmill, like the one depicted in this painting, dates as far back as 1191 when Pope Celestine III declared in writing that windmills were, in fact, subject to tithes. He was prompted to write the missive, apparently, by the complaints of a regional bishop struggling with a knight who refused to pay tithes on his windmill. This early documentation situates the traditional English windmill as a source of revenue and as a tool of an established authority: an apt introduction.

Traditional English windmills were used to grind grain. In their earlier history they typically had a span of 45 feet and created an energy output roughly equivalent to the work of 15-20 people.

To put this in perspective consider that in the Middle Ages an average family of four – two children and two adults – could be expected to consume roughly eight gallons of wheat and barley per week. It would take an approximate total of nine hours to grind this amount of grain by hand: 1.5 hours per day. Literally the daily grind (Dyer 1989).

It is also important to note that only Landlords had the right to build windmills, and tenants of Lords who owned mills were required to use them, rather than personal hand mills, and to forfeit a portion of their grain as payment for the service. Personal hand mills were prohibited under windmill owning Lords, and those caught using them were heavily fined (Langdon 2004). So while the use of the manorial windmill certainly would have saved families time and effort in hand grinding their grain, it also locked them into an arrangement that required payment for a task they otherwise might have completed themselves without the cost, and put them one step removed from the energy required to sustain their daily lives.

The power and efficiency of windmills grew through the years and by the 19th century windmills had had an average diameter of 80-100 feet and their output equaled the work of 100-200 people (Musgrove 2010). As it turned out, however, this was not enough to save them from irrelevancy.

Three things happened in the 1800s that would end the momentum of the English windmill.

  • First, mills powered by steam engines came on the scene offering a more efficient service than wind-powered mills.
  • Second, the Corn Laws were repealed, allowing new imports from abroad. The increased availability of grain from these imports depressed prices and convinced many farmers to get out of grain all together and refocus on dairy or vegetable farming, reducing the market for mills in general.
  • Third, white bread came into fashion. The production of white flour requires intense processing, using more than double the power needed to mill brown flour.

Traditional windmills simply could not match steam-powered mills in this processing. Despite warnings from doctors and concerned citizen groups about the health disadvantages of white flour, the consumer had spoken, and had said more processing, please. In the face of the more cost effective steam engine, better able to serve more “refined” social tastes, the windmill rapidly fell out of use in the UK.

Hamilton’s painting was likely completed at just this time.




Beef cattle and windmill on farm of George Hutton. Pie Town, New Mexico. Photographer Russell Lee. Created March 1937. Harvard, Mchenry, Illinois. Library of Congress Call Number LC-USF34-036779. Image source: Photogrammar.

























Aermotor Solitaire, photograph by Bill, October 1, 2015. Used under a Creative Common Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

Environmental Studies Past to the Future:

Generating Electricity with Wind

David Brewster

David Brewster, Fish Lake Aermotor, 40 x 30 inches, Oil on Mi-Tientes, 2007.

David Brewster was born in Baltimore, MD in 1960. He, like Hamilton, also landed in Philadelphia where he earned his MFA. This work depicts a scene from the high desert in California. Although it is a contemporary work, the windmill shown is the classic wind pump design introduced in the U.S. in the 1800s.

Just around the same time that windmills were falling out of favor in the UK, they were playing an important role in the United States. Unlike the traditional English windmill, like that in the painting Snow Storm with Figure, the windmills having a boom in the US in the 1800s were not used for grinding grain, but for pumping water.

They played a crucial role for settlers and farmers in the Great Plains where surface water could be scarce but was abundant underground, if a person could get to it. In his noted work The Great Plains, Walter Prescott Webb credits three things for the success of the settlement of the Great Plains west of the Mississippi River: the Colt 45 revolver, barbed wire and the wind pump (Webb 1891).

Where the traditional English windmill could be said to have been a symbol of the establishment–a privilege of the landed–in the US they could be seen as a tool for those looking to establish themselves. To make livable land they could call their own.

As the purpose of the American Farm Mill, or Wind Pump as they were known, differed from that of the traditional English windmill, so did the design. The wind pump had many more, and more narrow, blades than the “sails “on the traditional mill. This design offered a relatively high starting torque, so that the mill could be relied on to pump water even in light winds. The most famous, and most popular wind pump of the time, the Aermotor ̶ depicted in the painting and referenced in the title ̶ could pump water with wind speeds of less then 3 meters per second.

Many wind pump makers of the time were small operations serving their immediate region. Aermotor was an exception. In its first year of operation in 1888 the company sold 24 windmills. By 1892 Aermotor was selling over 20,000 a year. (Musgrove, 55) But even mighty Aermotor could not maintain its success.

Much like the demise of the windmill in the UK, the U.S. too saw the decline of wind pumps due to a combination of factors including government action and economics. The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 contributed to making electricity available to the various rural farms and settlements that relied on wind pumps. And once available, it was preferable. Where wind pumps, high quality Aermotor in particular, were expensive, electricity was cheap.

Although the demand dwindled, however, it did not die. Aermotor is still in business and, as it claims on the company website, still supplying replacement parts for wind pumps that have been in operation for over 100 years.

During the early era of public electricity development William Thomson (who became Lord Kelvin) addressed the 1881 British Association Meeting with the suggestion that wind power might be a useful resource for generating electricity as fossil fuels became scarcer and more expensive in the future (Thompson 1910). In 1888 American Charles Brush was using a large multi-blade windmill to power his mansion in Cleveland, OH. Danish inventor Poul la Cour succeeded in using wind to generate electricity on a larger scale, and in 1903 he founded the Society for Wind Electricians. Wind generated electricity seemed to be building momentum. However, as burning oil became a more common, less expensive, method of powering electrical generation, interest waned and ̶ with moments of resurgence during the World Wars when fuel was scarce ̶ fell out of common use.

We are again in a moment when interest in wind power is increasing. According to the U.S Department of Energy, in 2015 wind power represented approximately 5% of total electricity generation in the country. At certain points in that year as much as 43% of electricity in Texas was wind powered, and in Colorado that number rose as high as 66.4% (U.S. Department of Energy).

But where will it go from here?





Turbines at Los Vientos Wind Farm, by Duke Energy, December 12, 2014. Used under a Creative Common Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic License.

Discussion and Activities:


1. Both Hamilton and Brewster depict their windmills in storms, and in relation to nearby buildings. How are the elements in the paintings analogous to and/or representative of the cultural moments during which these windmills were active? How are they similar? Distinct?

2. As a global society “we consume fossil fuels approximately 1 million times faster than the rate at which they are formed” (Musgrove). Recognition that this is not sustainable has led to a new moment for considering the utility of wind power. How are the factors that led to previous rises and falls of wind power at play today?

3. Tenants in the Middle Ages were forced to use the Lord’s windmills rather than their own hand mills, and pay accordingly. Research contemporary limitations on the individual rights for using alternative energy in the United States. Are there similarities? Contrasts? Sample media research:  NPR, “Nevada Solar Power Business Struggles To Keep The Lights On,” March 11, 2016; Megan E. Phelps, “Economics of Wind Energy Systems,” Earth News: The Original Guide to Living Wisely, April/May 2013.

4. Paint a modern day windmill telling the story of its present cultural moment.

5. Assume the role of an English windmill owner in 1840. Create an advertisement for your business. Use Hamilton’s painting to guide your tone.

6. Assume the role of a would-be settler in the United States in 1860’s. Write a letter to your brother about the idea of going West to settle land together. Use Brewster’s painting to inspire your tone.

7. Assume the role of a utility company executive in contemporary Texas. Write a proposal for investing in wind farms rather then additional traditional power plants to meet your company’s increasing power generation needs. Focus on the economic arguments.



Dyer, C. (1989) Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Langdon, J (2004) Mills and the Medieval Economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Musgrove, P. (2010) Wind Power. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press

Thompson, S.P (1910). The Life of William Thompson, Baron Kelvin of Largs. London: MacMillan & Co.

U.S. Department of Energy,

Webb, W. P. (1891) The Great Plains. University of Nebraska Press.


About the author: This toolkit lesson was created by Jane Stewart, Energy Specialist at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, VA.

This lesson was created by Jane Stewart, an Energy Specialist at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. This lesson can be used or adapted by other educators for educational purposes with attribution to Stewart. None of this material may be used for commercial purposes. Copyright of original artworks belongs to the artist/university. Reproduced with permission from the artist. Please contact Andrea Lepage for information about the lesson or the Teaching with UCAH Project: or (540) 458-8305.
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Toolkit Lesson for James Hamilton and David Brewster by Jane Stewart is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.