HH The Windmill Effect

Between 1600 and 1795, the Netherlands did most things right to industrialize, yet the country’s industrialization occurred only after 1850. In the 17th century, the Netherlands made a massive investment in windmills, a technology clearly superior to water and animal power, but not readily adaptable for railroads or most industrial purposes. Then later, with industrial windmills predominant, the early steam engines were not sufficiently cost-effective to be worth adopting. This syndrome, of an existing technology becoming locked in and preventing further progress, has occurred elsewhere and may be hampering us today.

The Netherlands had used windmills since early mediaeval times, but the first real breakthrough in their industrial use was the invention of the windmill-powered sawmill in 1598. The advantages were huge of windmill-powered technology for powering sawmills, avoiding back-breaking manual labor for an application that could generally be held over for suitably windy days. Further technological advances included the Archimedes screw for water pumping, patented in 1654 and the “Hollander” paper-making windmill in 1674. Industrial windmills were concentrated in the Zaan region (north of Amsterdam) and were used for sawing, oilseed pressing, papermaking, cutting tobacco, paint preparation and hemp processing. The number of Zaan region windmills rose from 128 in 1630 to 584 in 1731, with over 900 industrial windmills in operation around the country by 1700.

The industrial windmill had three major disadvantages as the centrepiece of an Industrial Revolution. First, its maintenance costs were very high, so even before full industrialization, the profitability of windmill-powered operations was declining as competitors became more capable – the windmill count in Zaan decreased to 482 by the time of the French invasion of the Netherlands in 1795. Second, windmills worked best for discrete processes; you could not run a wind-powered textile mill because variable speeds and pauses for calm days were impossible to accommodate. Third, their power was limited; there was no way to make a windmill-powered railway (the Netherlands had developed an excellent canal network, which also delayed the advent of railways.)

The Netherlands’ windmill infrastructure thus drove away industries such as textiles for which wind power was unsuitable, and delayed the advent of steam power, whose early iterations were uncompetitive to the windmill network. Dutch industrialization thus did not occur before 1795, which in practice, given the country’s occupation, war and impoverishment, delayed most of it until after 1850.

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(The Bear's Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of "sell" recommendations put ...

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