How Do Windmills Work?

Windmills, and how do they work?

Windmills and windpumps

The structures typically referred to as windmills in Australia would be more correctly called a windpump, as they are not utilised for milling grain like the large windmill silos that are found across Europe and the Middle East. Australia has been utilising windmills to source water in areas where it is less accessible for almost 150 years.

Wind energy

The first widespread recorded use of wind being harnessed for energy was sailing ships, which utilised the gusts of wind to propel their ships at a much faster rate, and using significantly less energy than manpower.

Records of people using wind powered sailing ships and boats date bake thousands of years, in different formats all across the world.

When it comes to windmills, however, it was the Persian Empire that first exploited the natural elements in the form of a windmill. There are several structures that date back to the 5th century, that were designed to mill grain and sugar, which used a horizontal windmill system.

Windmills spread to Europe after the crusades, being used both for milling and water pumping. In the Netherlands, windmills were often used to pump water out of low lying areas so that homes and farms were able to be built there.

The United States led the way with modern wind pumps, thanks to innovative engineer and inventor Daniel Halladay, who built the original self-regulating windpumps for farms, in order to increase water supply.

From here, Halliday’s windpump spread to other areas such as Australia and South Africa, and the modern windmill is now used in many areas around the world requiring easier water harvesting solutions.


Windmills work by pumping water from deep under the ground, from a bore or well that has been dug deep enough to access an underground aquifer.

Windmills, if needed, can be used to pump water from up to 1000 feet underground – the depth your bore will need to be dug will depend on how deep below the surface any aquifers lie.

The windwheel catches the wind with specially designed blades, and is fixed to an axis which allows the wheel to turn in order to face the wind, to maximise the amount of time the mill can pump water for.

The mechanism the wheel is fitted to drives a geared mechanism, which moves a pump rod in an up and down motion inside of a pipe in the bore or well. Each upstroke forces water up the pipe and into the cylinder, while on the downstroke, a valve in the bottom of the pipe keeps the water from being pushed back down into the well, which results in the stored water being forced up a pipe with the next upstroke.


The pipe which the windmill pushes water up is best fixed to a water tank on an elevated area or a tank stand, allowing the water to then be gravity fed into troughs or the home.

Southern Cross Windmills

In 1876, George Washington Griffiths and his brother designed a windmill based on Daniel Halladay’s design. These “Griffiths” windmills would go on to be known as the Southern Cross Windmill, and a little over a century ago, the whole structure had been replaced with steel parts.


Almost 150 years on, Southern Cross Windmills continue to be produced, and supplied to rural areas all across Australia where reliable access to water is crucial to people’s way of life.

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