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Windmill Ways

Picture Holland in your mind. Now try to picture it without windmills. See? It's almost impossible. The Netherlands isn't the only country to harness passing wind in this way, but it seems to have secured exclusive worldwide rights to the image. Tulips, clogs, and cheese all have their places in Dutch mythology, but without windmills much of this low-lying country would not even exist.

Windmills first appeared in the 13th century, transforming the rotation of their sails into mechanical energy via a system of cogs and gears. They were employed to grind wheat, barley, and oats; crush seeds to create mustard and vegetable oil; hull rice and peppercorns; and power sawmills and other industrial machinery. Most important of all, windmills kept the fertile polder land dry by pumping away surplus water and draining it into the rivers by way of a network of stepped canals.

Of the many thousands that once stood in towns and villages, and in rows on the dikes, fewer than a thousand working examples survive today. The two most famous multiple-windmill scenes in the country are the industrial windmills at Zaanse Schans and the polder-drainage windmills at Kinderdijk.

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