Windmill technology spread to North America in the seventeenth century and beyond with the spread of European colonialism. Settlers from the British Isles and continental Europe brought their wind power expertise with them and built windmills for long-established purposes like grinding grain, sawing wood or churning butter. Windmills were thus a common feature of the North American landscape from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. In some rural locations that saw high levels of immigration from Europe, traditional windmill technology persisted well into the twentieth century. A remarkable Alberta example comes from Bruderheim where William Mallon, a farmer of German descent who had immigrated to Alberta, built a windmill in 1920 for the purpose of grinding his rye and wheat into flour.
The full significance of wind power in North America, however, came only when it was adapted for the particular circumstances of settlement in the arid environment of the American Great Plains and the Canadian Prairie West. In areas like Alberta, settlement was made far easier and more productive through the use of windpumps. Agricultural settlement of the North American Plains began in the early nineteenth century and exploded in the decades after 1870. The end of the American Civil War, the
military subjugation of the indigenous population, and the construction of railways across the region all contributed to the tremendous growth of settlement in the American West in the late nineteenth century. At the same time, the Government of Canada purchased Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1869, opening the Canadian Prairies for agricultural settlement. When settlers arrived on the great expanse of the North American prairie, they found that the environment and the conditions for settlement were far different than in the East. Farming and ranching, the two staple industries of the region, required a great deal of water, and, unfortunately, the prairies lacked the vast system of rivers, streams and lakes found in the East. The region’s rainfall was also significantly less than what the newly arriving settlers were used to. The prairies did have plenty of water, but it was locked away in underground aquifers requiring wells and pumps to be raised. At first, wells were dug by hand using picks and shovels, and water was drawn by buckets. Once completed these wells might be from 2.5 to 9 m (8 to 29.5 ft.) deep. Such efforts took up too much time and energy and were insufficient for ranching. What was needed, therefore, was a pump that worked during all hours and that was cheap both to construct and to operate.