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Gems of the Archive: The Universal Theatre of Machines

Hello, it’s me again. Unbelievably I am now halfway through my internship at the Mills Archive (insert obligatory Bon Jovi reference here), and the gem page is really starting to fill up. This week Mildred had a treat in store for me in the form of The Universal Theatre of Machines, an original 17th-century millwright’s book.

Poster Image

This marvel by Johannis van Zyl and Jan Schenk is one of the earliest and most detailed books in our collection. Its publication represents the sharing of knowledge between Dutch Millwrights and the wider world; indeed, Mildred told me that it was whilst in the Netherlands Peter the Great of Russia learnt about the modern windmill process and construction, information which he would take back home with him to use as part of his plan to reform the Russian economy and bring it up to date with the western model.

The book contains exquisitely detailed diagrams of all manner of windmills, but one design feature I was particularly intrigued by was the large pole protruding out of the caps of the mills. Mildred explained that this was due to the lack of fantails on Dutch mills: instead, their caps would be turned by hand.

The designs are a combination of impressive feats of engineering and beautiful works of art. For example, one of the Netherland’s famous drainage mills is shown with a geometric star-like wheel, which was as complex in its technicality as its aesthetics. Another illustration which demonstrates five men turning a capstan is drawn with painstaking attention to detail – it is notable that the illustrator has concentrated as much on accurately drawing the men’s individual outfits as he has on recording the capstan.  

Before I came to the archive, I assumed that since I had seen one windmill, all the rest were the same. However, as this fantastic work has taught me, these fabulous structures vary hugely in their uses and nuances of design – a true Theatre of Machines.