History of Windmills 

Early history

The earliest known windmill design was the vertical axis system believed to have originated from Persia around AD 500-900.

The windmill was later introduced to Europe by the Crusaders returning from the Holy Wars during the 12th century. Some of the oldest windmills in the world can be found in Afghanistan.

Although the earliest documented record of Chinese windmills is A.D.1219, they may have been used in China for over 2,000 years.

The first recorded windmill in Europe was built in Normandy (France) in 1180. The technology soon spread to southern England and Germany with the earliest known windmill in England being found in Weedley, Yorkshire and dates back to 1185. In the 1390's the Dutch began refining the windmill design. (Adapted from West Australian Vista, History of Windmills) 

Workings of a windmill 

The history of windmills begins in Persia around AD 500-900.Windmills are machines that were first built to automate the task of grinding grain and for pumping water. The windmill works by the wind blowing across the sails (blades) which are fixed onto a shaft on top of the tower. The shaft runs down through the middle of the tower and as the blades rotate from the force of the wind the shaft spins. The shaft in turn, spins the large wheels and gears inside. The wheels and gears can turn things such as grinding stones, pumps or saws. (Adapted from West Australian Vista, History of Windmills) 

Australian Windmill History 

Southern Cross

In 1876 Griffiths Bros. & Co began making the first Australian windmills at their Toowoomba factory. Their first windmills, known as the 'Griffiths' mill, were based on a windmill imported from America. They were direct acting mills and the wheels and towers were made of wood. A few years later, the firm produced a lighter windmill with the turntable located on top of the tower. This was known as the 'Economy'. Up until 1893, the Toowoomba Foundry had a range which included 'the Economy, 'the Improved Economy', 'the Simplex Mill', 'the Little Wonder' and 'the Reliance which was taken over from Porritt's Reliance Foundry.

In 1893, during the depression and flood, Mr J A (Alfred) Griffiths designed the 'Zephyr' windmill. Although there had been some previously made in the United States of America, this was the first geared windmill made in Australia. As well as being geared for easier starting, the Zephyr had a wheel on the upwind side of the tower, but was still of wooden construction. A geared windmill uses gears in the engine to increase the rotational speed of the windmill's wheel before converting the circular motion to the plunger motion. This is in contrast to a direct action mill in which the windmill's circular motion is converted to the plunger motion by means of a crank. One turn of the wheel converts to one complete up-and-down stroke. In 1920, all Southern Cross designs with wheels 14ft and over were direct action while those 10ft and below were geared while the 12ft mills could be ordered either geared or direct action. With the current IZ mills both the 12ft and 14ft wheels are geared. The overlap between geared and direct acting mills was to allow for deep bores which need slower pumping and more torque.

In the early 1900’s the Zephyr was succumbing to pressure from much cheaper American windmills. At the Toowoomba Show, G H (Bert) Griffiths noticed that their windmills ran at about half the speed of those of his American competitors.  He measured their wheels and concluded that his sails had too much curvature in them.

He designed a new mill and in 1903, the Toowoomba factory sold its first commercial windmill under the trade name the "Southern Cross". Designed by Bert Griffiths, they were simple, robust and relatively cheap. They became one of the best known and sold windmills in Australia.

His new design incorporated blades with a flatter profile, internal gears, and an ability to govern itself. The Southern Cross windmill, designed and named by Bert Griffiths, became one of the great successes of the Toowoomba Foundry. This mill was such a simple, inexpensive and efficient mill that, by 1910, it had almost eliminated American mills from the Australian market.

In 1990, a milestone was reached with the production tally of 200,000 windmills since production first started. Up until 1992, each mill was stamped with a unique serial number. From 1992 onwards, each mill is stamped with a number that identified the day, month, year and the mill number assembled on that day.  

(Adapted from The Institution of Engineers, Australia Engineering Heritage Australia Plaquing Program, Southern Cross Windmill, Toowoomba, 2003)
 Walters, Malcolm The Windmill Journal, History of Australian & New Zealand Windmills Millett, Bruce Toowoomba Foundry 1871) 

Some of Australia’s best known windmill manufacturers included; Southern Cross, Comet, James Alston & Sons, Metters and Bryan Bros of Colac.  The use of windmills declined in Australia as many were replaced with electrical / solar pumps. Today, wind power has gained popularity again with the increasing use of wind turbines for electricity. Windmills are still the cheapest and most reliable pumping machine invented.  

James Alston & Sons Pty Ltd 

As a young man, in the early 1880's, James Alston set himself up in business as a blacksmith and agricultural machine manufacturer, in the town of Warrnambool on the south-west coast of Victoria. In 1886, he patented an all-metal mill with a modern type, multi-sailed wheel.

In the late 1890's he moved his headquarters to the city of Melbourne, in all probability to be closer to sources of supplies and material. Melbourne, then as now, the largest port in Victoria and second largest in Australia, besides being the state's major railhead.

At the time, Australia was largely dependent on Great Britain for the supply of steel. Although iron founding was well established in Australia by 1900, there were still no large blast furnaces or rolling mills, so essential for the production in quantity, of mild steel in its various forms. Angle steel and galvanised sheet were shipped in large quantities from Great Britain.

Improvements and innovations to the Alston windmill continued. About 1911, the fully enclosed oil bath gearless mill was patented: one of the first mills ever to offer full mechanical enclosure coupled with self-lubrication.  In 1916, the double geared oil bath mill was introduced, thereby phasing out the popular open type double crank mill.

Alston was a prolific inventor. His last known patents for improvements to windmills were issued in the mid 1930's. At that time, James Alston must have been around 85 years of age.

James Alston died in 1943, and without his guiding hand at the helm, the firm of James Alston and Sons Pty. Ltd. went into gradual decline. Plagued by a post-war shortage of steel and inhibited by rather outmoded designs, the vacuum left by flagging Alston sales was filled rapidly by more modern types of windmills, such as Southern Cross, Comet and Metters.

By the late 1950's the firm was in decline and ended in bankruptcy about 1960.  

Comet Windmills 

Comet specialised in the design and manufacture of windmill pumping plants for Outback Australia.

The engineering works at Dulwich Hill covered 2½ acres of ground. This was the largest and most-up-to-date Windmill Factory in Australia at the time. In 1920, the Government introduced contracting for windmill pumping plants over the following 30 years including all Railways, Councils, Water Commission, Stock Routes, etc. In the Northern Territory, Comet Pumping Plants were the sole choice on all major Stock Routes and were the predominant force in all other states for other Government contracts. In the 1940’s the firm manufactured guns and equipment during the 2nd World War. Sidney Williams along with most other manufacturers was ordered to undertake the manufacture of items for the defence industry. These items included brake drums or bogey wheel castings for tanks and armoured carriers, steel frame army huts principally for the new guinea campaign, high precision gauges & jigs made in a specially built and equipped annexe at Dulwich Hill for the small arms factory at Lithgow and Comet Mills to equip stock routes in the Northern Territory in support of the beef industry. At its height over 500 employees were engaged by the Firm of engineers of which Mr. Williams was principal. In addition to Dulwich Hill the firm had another large works in Rockhampton – the original home of the Firm – branch offices and stores in Brisbane and in Townsville, and well over one hundred Agents throughout Australia.  

Comet made a range of windmills and pumps, including some models capable of raising up to 200,000 gallons of water a day. They also corrugated tanks, tank stands, sheep jetters, steel frame buildings, steel dips, fire ploughs, saw benches, winches.

The company survived two World Wars, the Depression and subsequent economic recessions. They became known as ‘Australia’s Leading Mill’ and have been referred to as ‘the Rolls Royce of Windmills’.

In the early 2000’s Comet Windmills Australia relocated from Dulwich Hills to Macksville on the mid north coast of NSW. They continue to manufacture windmills and have also diversified into construction of towers for modern renewable energy power and storage technology.