The historical origins of the windmill are shrouded in mystery. Water-powered mills were certainly built by Hellenistic engineers in ancient Greece2, but the ‘invention’ of the windmill – that is, the notion to use wind to power a machine – didn’t happen until several centuries later3. A common anecdote regarding the first windmill has been told by several early post-Islamic Arab historians, and revolves around a certain mid-seventh century Persian: Pirouz Nahavandi. While the story has been told differently by various sources, it roughly goes as follows: the Sassanian soldier Pirouz is captured and enslaved at the court of second Caliph of Islam, Umar, in Medina. There, he boasts about his capabilities as a carpenter. His skills as a carpenter are so extraordinary, he says, that he can build a machine powered by the wind. After hearing of this bragging, Umar challenges him to build the machine, to which Pirouz replies, ‘I will build a windmill that the whole world will talk about’4. Unfortunately, before he got around to building his windmill, Pirouz killed Umar with three (or six) stabs of his dagger; as such, to this day, Pirouz has been remembered more as the murderer of the Caliph than the first windmill builder. His supposed tomb near the province of Kerman in Iran is still a popular place of pilgrimage for nationalist Iranians and windmill enthusiasts alike.
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