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A History of the Water Wheel

Show me the Technology!
Which came first the mill wheel or the money?
It is like asking the age old question- Which came first beer or bread?

A History of the Water Wheel
Theodore R. Hazen

A History of the Water Wheel

Please Note: Today (Monday, 22, April 2002) I had a main storage drive crash. I had over 900 MB of stuff, and was the last back up for my computer that crashed last October. I lost the only copy of every mill and related mill site (that I have ever visited on the internet with all of the text and images); scanned images and artwork; HABS-HAER mill files; 30 years of manuscripts, writing projects and restoration reports; future web page material and business records. The follow is a "draft only copy" of the original intended article. When I recover from loosing heart and hating computer technology a bit less, perhaps I may issue a revised "final edition copy" with intended images and artwork. Thank you, T. R. Hazen.

A History of the Water Wheel

Water wheels and their development can be seen in three distinct types of water mills. The first and simplest type of water wheel, and probably the easiest to construct is the horizontal wheel used for driving a millstone through a vertical shaft attached directly to the wheel. Then the earliest was a vertical wheel had paddles on which the force of the stream acted. The second more high powered was a vertical water wheel used as a form of lifting device. The large vertical water wheel had buckets attached to the outer rim of the water wheel. At fist the wheel was turned by an oxen circling a capstan, when the wheel was mounted in a rapidly moving stream it suggested that is power could be possibility used to grind grain In the next stage the third, was the geared mill driven by a vertical water wheel with a horizontal shaft.

The water wheel is an ancient device that uses flowing or falling water to create power by means of a set of paddles mounted around a central wheel or axle. The force of the water moves the paddles, blades or buckets, and the consequent rotation of the wheel is transmitted to machinery via the shaft of the wheel. The first reference to its use dates back to about 400 B.C., where, in a poem by an early Greek writer, Antipater, it tells about the freedom from the toil of young women who operated small hand mills to grind corn. were used for crop irrigation, grinding grains, supply drinking experts water to villages and later to drive sawmills, pumps, forge bellows, tilt-hammers, trip hammers, and to power textile mills.

The water wheel did not develop until advances in milling took place to a certain degree of technology. The use of the rotatory motion came into use, consisted of two circular flat stones. The top, or runner stone was made with a hole in the center through this opening extended a spindle on which the upper stone rested by means of a bearing rynd. The grain that was to be milled was hand fed into through the hole. The runner stone is turned above the non-moving stationary bottom bed stone. The first use of mechanical power was found in Persia. The Persian mills had sails that worked horizontally. The sails were on top and the shaft when down through the floor below were the the millstones were located. A hole in the wall opposite of the millstones above a trough acted as a wind tunnel to blow the chaff from the grain.

This was probably the first method of creating mechanical energy that replaced humans and animals. The early water mills derived from the ancient horizontal wind mills using no gears. The wind blew through one opening in the mill building and out the other. The mills worked in areas where the wind would blow from only one direction. It may have been because Persia controlled Greece and Cyprus. At the time the Greeks showed no interest in the arts, technology, commerce or industry. The next stage in the development of mill simply may have been because the wind blew from many directions on the Greek Islands. It was not too long before their mill builders or millwrights took the basic idea of the Persian wind mill and turned it around and developed the vertical wind mill which was more dependable and constant source of power. The horizontal water wheel is now believed to have originated in the mountains of Armenia in about the year 200 B.C. Horizontal wind mills were even constructed later in the United States with other types of wind mills. The use of these Greek Mills spread around the Mediterranean into Spain and Portugal. There the horizontal mills were also used with tidal power and then later in the United States. In Scandinavia they became known as "Norse Mills." There use would even be spread into the Americas. In the 1840 the French developed the modern turbine from the tub mills of American. Then the Romans later controlled Greece and the Roman engineers studied the Greek Mill to improve upon its efficiency and ability to grind on a larger scale. The results was an another type of water mill altogether. This type of mill involved a vertical water wheel fastened to a horizontal shaft. The wheel could be used to move water to the top of great aqueducts or through the use of gears power millstones, changing the direction of the drive 90 degrees. Later the Crusaders would turn to the idea of the wind mill for building mills in France and England. They took the idea of the Roman vertical water wheel and applied it to create the wind wheel that would power the millstones below by gears. Armenian use of the water wheel created the boat or floating mill that spread into central Europe and would be come know as the Hungarian Mill. The Hungarians would then bring the mill to the rivers of Ohio in the United States.

There are three main kinds of vertical water wheels they are the undershot, breast shot and overshot. The undershot vertical water wheel, a large vertical water wheel placed in a stream is turned by the river's motion or by tidal action. This kind of the horizontal water wheel can also be used to lift water to the top of an aqueduct to then transport water over a great distance. The water wheel is placed in the river and is turned by the water, and as the forward action of the water turns the wheel, attached to the rim of the water wheel are clay pots. They are filled in the river as the wheel turns and are upturned and emptied upon the top and water flows into the aqueduct channel. Another kind of water wheel is the overshot vertical water wheel, in which water flows from an aqueduct or sluice box and the gravity of the water turns the wheel. The overshot and the undershot water wheels worked fine for the lowlands and the mountains but not always suited for the middle reaches of the streams. It was soon discovered that not all places water could be made to flow to the top the wheel or runs along the bottom of the wheel. Some places were a water wheel could be used the water could be made to turn the wheel somewhere at is center. Thus the breast water wheel was developed.

A Vitruvian Water Mill

The earliest known description of a vertical water mill is found in the writings of Vituvius, a Roman engineer. The water mill shown in this illustration is of the type designed by Vitruvius. In about 200 B.C. the Romans made great strides carrying water long distances by aqueducts and master other hydraulic arts. They had adopted the horizontal mill from the Greeks but were dissatisfied with its degree of efficiency. The first mention of the vertical mill similar to the ones of early America, and that still exist scattered around the world, is found in his writings of this Roman engineer. Vituvius described in a ten-volume treatise on all aspects of Roman engineering, the new type of mill in documents made public between the years 20 to 11 B.C.

Vitruvius expressed an enthusiasm for this type of device (the wheel described as an "undershot," whose lover part was immersed in the stream so the current turned it in a reverse direction. He said, "machines which are rarely employed." However water mills remained scare in the late Roman Empire, because of the Empires two great power sources that were men and animals. A philosopher Seneca wrote of the Roman short comings, saying, "The day will come when posterity will be amazed that we remained ignorant of things that will to them seem so plain." Finally it all came down to economics because there was little incentive to explore labor-saving technology. The Romans did not overlook the water wheel entirely, but they did fail to recognize its full potential. It was the Germanic people who introduced non-Mediterranean style of clothing which became modern Western style of clothing and manufacturing techniques. Another Barbarian contribution was the wooden barrel in the first century B.C., that replaced the fragile clay pots and leaky animal skins that were used in transporting oil, wine and beer.

It was the Roman improvements that transformed the rotary hand quern into the large animal or slave powered hourglass mills preserved in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Ostia. It was not the Greeks or Romans who developed either wind or water powered devices. We in the west, associate more with the Greeks and the Roman's, but it was the Persian's who first used the power of wind and water to operate mills. The Turks who would then conquer the Persian's thought of them as an inferior race, incapable of developing and using technology. One of the ancient Persian stories mentions this Persian who would time and time again describe the mechanical mills of his homeland. He mentioned them so much that his master, still not convinced that this being true, allowed his servant to construct one of these mills. The Turkish master was so amazed by this mechanical wonder that he went and brought the head Turkish leaders in the area to see what his servant had created. When they were all in the mill watching the machinery turn the Persian pulled a leaver and ran out the door closing it behind him. The machinery tore itself apart and everyone inside was killed. I should tell the rest of the story. The Persian inherited his masters wealth, and one night when he was sleeping in his masters bed, a thief slipped thought the window and slit his throat.

This type of mill involved a vertical water wheel fastened to a horizontal drive shaft. To carry the power to the millstones, gears were used, changing the direction of the drive 90 degrees. Later developments came with changing the gearing to increase the speed of the spindle on which the runner stone was supported. This type of mill described by Vituvius was the most common for centuries to come and arrived with the first settlers along with the Greek design, to North America.

The first water wheels can be described as a grindstone mounted atop a vertical shaft whose vanes or paddled lower end dipped into a swift stream, the wheel was horizontal. As early as the first century, the horizontal water wheel, which is terribly inefficient in transferring the power of the current to the milling mechanism, was being replaced by water wheels of the vertical design. One of the early design must have been where the one rim of the water wheel had gear teeth mounted in its outer face and that turned a lantern pinion that ran a single pair of millstones. This was a very common design for centuries. When a mill wanted to run another pair of millstones they simply added another water wheel. It was easier to construct another water wheel than try and design a mill setup where a single water wheel could operate more than one pair of millstones.

Water wheels were most often used to power different types of mills. A water wheel and mill combination is called a water mill. An early horizontal-wheeled water mill used for grinding grain in Greece was the called Norse Mill. In Syria and Jordan, the water mills were called "norias". The noria were probably developed from the Persian water wheels. The Persian water wheels were used to lift water from wells by an endless system of ropes upon which a series of clay pots turn over two pulley wheels. This type of water wheel was later used to lift water out of underground mines in Europe.

Domesday Book had no less than 5,624 entries of water mills. This number eventually peaked to just over 20,000 and were used to provide energy for milling corn, operating bellows and hammers in forging iron, for sharpening tools and weapons, for textile manufacture, for tanning and even for pumping water from mines.

A modern invention based on the same principles as the water wheel is called the
hydraulic turbine. The turbine is a rotary motor that uses the flow of fluid to turn a shaft that drives machinery. Hydraulic turbines are used in hydroelectric power stations. Flowing or falling water strikes a series of blades or buckets attached around a shaft. The shaft then rotates and the motion drives the rotor of an electric generator.

Topics for further discussion:

1. Water Wheels and Mills: A history of water wheels, includes diagrams of how water wheels work. Who really invented the grist mill?

I don't think that it could be said that any one person invented the grist mill. The term "mill" means that the grinding of grain took on a "place" of its own other than in the home. The term grist mill usually means a mill for grinding grain. It is mainly applied to a "custom" mill were the miller grinds grain for farmers or individuals. For his efforts the miller collects a toll in payment for his services of grinding grain. The other type of mill is a "merchant" mill were they grind mainly wheat and produce white flour for profit and export. Local laws established the amounts that the miller could legally take in payment or services for grinding grain. In medieval times there was "soke rights" were the lord or Abbott who ruled an area all the the peasants had to take their grain to be ground in the lord's or master's mill. The mill was often told by the lord to steal more than the fair toll and the miller sometimes would think I could just take more for myself. So miller's got very dishonest reputations. The peasants had no rights to take their grain elsewhere if the miller was stealing from them. (See: History of Corn Milling, by Richard Bennett and John Elton, 4 volumes, reprint Burt Franklin, New York, 1964, Research and Source Works Series #74)

There were human or actually slave and cattle powered mills. The first mechanical powered mills were about 3,000 years ago. The Persian windmills (see Persian Windmills, by Michael Harverson, 65 pages., Volume 10, Bibliotheca Molinologica, The International Molinological Society (T.I.M.S.), 1991, ISBN 92-9134-015-4) was the first use of natural power other than by man or beast. The Persian windmills were built in rows or a series of windmills that contained a number of windmills in one long building. If you go to my web page called Mill Societies and Related Links, you will find this and other books listed in their publications section. The Persian windmills have tall narrow slit in the wall to allow the wind to enter and another on the other side for the wind to exit. In side is a tall multi sided vertical wind blade that looks like something they would build on Gulligan's Island. The wind (that only blows from one direction) comes through the slot in the wall and turns the wind blade. On the bottom of the shaft that goes through the floor and to a room below is a pair of millstones sitting on a shelf or platform. The blade turn one of the round millstones and grinds the grain. On the opposite side of the room is a trough where on one side of the room is a round hole that allows the wind to enter above the trough were the grain is winnowed, and the air leaves through a hole on the other side thus forming a simple wind tunnel.

The Persians believed that wind power was a gift from the gods. It can be used for good or evil. So when the windmills become damaged, broken or in need of repair they would simply abandoned then and build a new windmill. Because the of the simple facts that in repairing them the gods can become angry and cause pain, hurt or kill you. So even today in parts of ancient Persia were these windmills are still used they abandon then when they become in need of repair or rebuilding.

About 2,200 years ago when the Persians had control of parts of Greece and Cyprus they realized that in those locations the wind blows from many directions. The Persian must thought about adopting their windmill to operate from many directions and realized that in other lands only water flows from one direction.

The Turks who conquered the Persians considered they an inferior slave race not capable of inventing or developing technology such a mechanical power. People perhaps mistakenly termed the water mills found on the Greek Islands as "Greek Mills," but were they really constructed by the Greeks? The Greeks had problems getting together as a single group and defending themselves against the Trojans, the Persians and the Romans.

Grist Mills changed little in thousands of years. They were simple devices often a single pair of millstones that was turned by simple gearing and a water wheel. Often if you wanted to install another pair of millstones you had to add another water wheel. Up until 1500 the average diameter of a pair of millstones was 72 inches, but they discovered that bigger was not better and finally the average became a standard of 48 inches in diameter. The Romans had seven grades of flour or products that they would sift from wheat, so white flour was nothing new. You kept within your class and you only ate what your class of people ate. The rich and the affluent classes ate white flour while the poorer peasant classes ate the brown flours. (see: "Bread of Dreams," a history of bread during medieval times) If starvation and malnutrition does not get you then eating the bread might finish you off. Brown bread was also termed "dog bread" because often it was not fit to feed dogs. It was not until the 1700 were machines develop that could clean the dirt, seeds, fungus, smut, straw, chaff and stones out of grain. The fungus ergot was a problem in rye and opium was a common additive in bread in the middle ages.

The one person who did the most for mills was Oliver Evans (1755-1819). What he did mainly benefited the larger merchant mill that produced commercial white flour. Its biggest benefit was in material handling, how grain and flour is stored and moved. At one time grain and flour was hoisted through trap doors and carried on backs up narrow stairs. Grain and flour was stored in the open on floors and it was not uncommon for someone to compress flour into a barrel with road mud on their boots so the barrel head could be closed.

2. Buildings and Structures of Water Mills: An early successful water mill was the following:

A remarkable complex at Barbegal, near Arles, in southern France, dating from the fourth century A.D., had 8 overshot water wheels each turning a pair of millstones with a total capacity of 3 tons of grain a hour. Perhaps dark ages were not so dark after all (500-900 A.D.). THE ARLES AQUEDUCT & BARBEGAL MILL c. 2-3 century AD

In the Commune of Fontvieille, the "Vallon des Arcs" shelters romantic ruins of a series of arches carrying a double aqueduct. Arriving within sight of a rocky point which bars the valley to the south, one of the canalization turns abruptly to the west and goes towards Arles. The other crosses the spur by a trench cut into the living rock, and seems to plunge into nowhere. In reality, in Roman times it poured into a distribution basin which fed the hydraulic mill below, on the south slope of the hill dominating the Barbegal marshes. A real industrial scale flour mill, this factory is, without doubt, unique in antique architecture. Built on a steep hillside, the multiple mills of Barbegal has as its center a monumental stairway which served the 16 milling rooms placed on either side. From the reservoir basin, water was divided into two series of mill courses on terraces which provided a succession of waterfalls to work the 5 paddle wheels. The latter by means of gearing, drove 16 basalt milling-stones 3 feet in diameter!

3. History of Mills: Mills were an important part of life in the 18th century, mills became the first factories.

These first factories were textile mills. The developments of power looms and spinning machines made for the growth of the textile mill. They became larger and more elaborate than grain mills. The first castles of industry but into them went the social problems of the times. In England there were small water powered mills that just made needles (needle mills) but industries like this remained small cottage industries.

4. What type of water wheel was really used in the mill back then?

Now the problem is each mill is different in how it is laid out and what it was build to process and produce. It is sort of like trying to recreate a dead man's fingerprints after his flesh has been rotted to the bone and everyone has passed on who could swear what he touched in life.

One of the big problems that I have been fighting for years is the problem of the undershot water wheel. In the United Kingdom they call all water wheels whose water exits the wheel from underneath. So they call or classify all: under shots, low breast shots, medium breast shots, high breast shots, and pitch-back water wheels, as being undershot water wheels because the water exits from underneath. Also the problem with people who don't or could identify one water wheel type from another tend to generalize them as either overshot or undershot. An undershot water wheels by some people is also called an under cut wheel or back shot wheel, an English term. One of the worse recording of a water wheel type, I found mention of one of the two static mill exhibits on the Roaring Fork Auto Trail, in the Smoky Mountains National Park, out side of Gatlinsburg, Tennessee. It referred to the Junglebrook Tub Mill as being an "Over Shot Mill," because the water is "overshot" over the water wheel. One of the mills that stood in the Smoky Mountains that was not save had a "pitch-back" water wheel. When the Smoky Mountains National Park was created they decided to save only a representation of the buildings once found in the area. This meant that builds were torn down, not save and others moved around, there was many more building in the area that is now a National Park.

The breast shot water wheel was the most common water wheel type used by American industry up until the French developed the water turbine in the 1840's Also the same requirements for the breast shot are also the same for the water turbine. The requirements for overshots and undershots are different as to the amount of water and required fall. Undershot water wheels were primarily used on boat or floating mills and on tidal mills were there is little or no fall but lots of water that pushes the wheel.

The other problem is millwrights or mill builders tended to only build what they knew how to construct. So if they were trained only to construct overshot or undershot water wheels that is what they built when they came to America. So it was not uncommon to have undershot water wheels with a 40 foot fall. Undershot water wheels are the least efficient of all water wheels. Breast shot and undershot water wheels tend to be larger to make up in torque the short comings they have with less fall than an undershot. I can't remember a saw mill being built with an undershot water wheel. Up along the coast of Maine were tidal powered saw mills were very common. In some areas many tidal mills have another other type of water wheels the tub wheel


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Copyright 2000 by T. R. Hazen