From intercontinental spy balloons to solving the carbon crisis – wind can take us places

Humans have a long history of using wind to carry out work that is now powered by fossil fuels

Last month, a surveillance balloon launched in China was shot down by the United States. American defence officials suggested that it had been launched as part of a spy programme operating from Hainan, an island in southwest China. Chinese officials claimed it was a weather balloon that had been blown off course while collecting meteorological data.

When it was shot down off the coast of South Carolina, the balloon had travelled at least 15,000km, farther than the maximum range of almost all passenger jets. Remarkably, it had done so almost entirely by wind power. Its payload comprised a set of 12 solar panels and a sensor array, roughly the length of a swimming pool and weighing at least a tonne.

This was carried across an ocean and a continent by a helium balloon and the wind. Although the balloon required was massive (at 60m, it was the same height as Liberty Hall in Dublin), it was efficient. The equivalent journey in an airliner would have released hundreds of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere.

Humans have a long history of using wind to carry out work that is now powered by fossil fuels. More than 7,000 years ago, papyrus boats with a square-rigged single sail were used as a transport on the Nile. When the Great Pyramid was built, sailing had become an integral part of Egyptian culture. Ships built from Lebanese cedar ferried limestone to Giza, and the pharaoh Khufu was buried inside it with a fully functional ship so that he could sail in the afterlife.


It was also in Egypt that wind was applied to land-based devices. The first-century engineer Hero of Alexandria designed an organ powered by wind. In fourth-century Tibet, wind-operated Buddhist prayer wheels began to appear.

By the ninth century, Persian engineers realised that a set of sails mounted in a circle could turn an axle and the panemone was born, used to pump water or grind grain. They soon spread to western Europe, where vertical sails were developed in the 12th century.

The Normans brought them to Ireland in 1281, building a mill outside Old Ross in Wexford. Ireland had a sophisticated water-milling tradition, and wind was used to supplement this, especially on the sheltered east coast. Even today, the drumlins of my native Co Down are dotted with windmill ruins, while there are fine examples still working at Ballycopeland and Skerries.

In transport, sail dominated until the late 19th century, with clippers such as the Cutty Sark still proving faster on long voyages than steamers

Windmills quickly became an essential part of European culture and industry, from Don Quixote’s windmills of La Mancha to the iconic Mykonos windmills. Nowhere is more closely associated with windmills than the Netherlands, a country that would not exist without wind power. A quarter of the Dutch land mass sits beneath sea level on polders, squares of reclaimed land surrounded by dykes and drained by windmill pumps.

They also developed a sophisticated naval tradition, with overseas trade a central part of the Dutch economy. Merchant sailors were key to the Dutch revolt against Spanish rule, and the subsequent Dutch Republic became the foremost maritime power. Many sailing terms, including skipper and yacht (incidentally, the first yacht club was established in Cork in 1720) are originally Dutch.

This was the age of sail, although industry slowly transitioned to steam power. Yet wind still had its place; the Roe distillery in Dublin was powered by the largest smock windmill in Europe, which survives as St Patrick’s Tower. And in transport, sail dominated until the late 19th century, with clippers such as the Cutty Sark still proving faster on long voyages than steamers. In 1783, the Montgolfier brothers successfully launched a hot-air balloon, ushering in another era, of flight. As the 20th century dawned, countries scrambled to perfect the airship.

Transatlantic flight became a reality, and the Empire State Building’s iconic spire was built with airship mooring in mind. The vast improvement in powered flight and disasters such as the Hindenburg in 1937 meant that the age of the airship was short lived. But wind power survived in other forms. Scottish inventor James Blyth developed a wind turbine in 1887, making wind a viable source of electricity.

Just over a century later, Ireland’s first wind farm opened in Mayo. Last year a third of our electricity came from wind, saving an estimated €2 billion compared with gas. And airships might soon be making a comeback – the Airlander 10 airship by Hybrid Air Vehicles has been proposed as an environmentally-friendly alternative to the Belfast-Liverpool ferry and flights.

Stuart Mathieson is a postdoctoral fellow in the school of history and geography at Dublin City University