Was the Zaanstreek the Birthplace of the Industrial Revolution?

By Paul Gipe

The Zaanstreek or the district on the Zaan river in the Dutch province of Noord Holland once contained the largest documented concentration of traditional European windmills in the world. During the Netherlands’ golden age more than 700 windmills were in use along the Zaan.

Most famous today is Zaanse Schans, an open-air museum of traditional Dutch windmills twenty minutes north of Amsterdam. It’s a must see on the tourist route of Noord Holland. The six mills open to visitors are maintained by De Vereniging Zaanse Molen or the Association for Zaan Mills. Altogether the association manages 12 mills in the district surround Zaandam, the nearest city.

While traditional windmills ground grain, the Zaan district is known for its industrial mills and some of these can be found at Zaanse Schans. These mills were used for any purpose requiring mechanical power: grinding grain certainly, but also sawing timber, pressing rapeseed for oil, making paper, shredding tobacco, and grinding pigments for dyeing are some of the other uses of the Zaan’s windmills.

The Dutch and others attribute the birth of the industrial revolution not to the coal of Newcastle but the wind of North Holland in the 17th century.[1]

Western culture often associates the traditional European or “Dutch” windmill with the Netherlands. They were not only instrumental in feeding the Dutch population but also by tapping the wind could Jan Leegwater (literally Jan of the “empty water”), and the engineers that followed him, drain the polders and make the Netherlands what it is today.

Note. I am looking for additional source material for the Dutch claim that the Zaanstreek was the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Academic or published sources preferred. If you have such information, please post me a message at pgipe@igc.org.

“Windmills belong to the Dutch landscape, to such an extent, that we cannot imagine this landscape without them,” said Frederick Stokhuyzen in his authoritative little book on The Dutch WindmillI.[2]

“The large number [of windmills] should not surprise us when we bear in mind that in former days for every 2,000 inhabitants there had to be one windmill to ensure an uninterrupted supply of meal to the population”[3]

As late as 1850, 90% of the power used in Dutch industry came from the wind. Steam supplied the rest. The 700 windmills in the Zaan district north of Amsterdam formed the core of what would become the center of Dutch manufacturing.[4]

Kris de Decker argues that “It was an industrial revolution entirely powered by renewable energy – something that we can (and do) only dream of today. Wind and water powered mills were in essence the first real factories in human history. They consisted of a building, a power source, machinery and employees, and out of them came a product.”[5]

[1] Holland Windmills. “Zaanse Schans Windmills Amsterdam,” March 15, 2019. https://hollandwindmills.com/zaanse-schans-windmills-amsterdam/.


[2] Frederick Stokhuyzen. The Dutch Windmill. New York, NY: Universe Books, 1963. p. 11.

[3] Stokhuyzen, p. 12.
[4] Stokhuyzen, The Dutch Windmill, p. 14.


[5] Kris de Decker. “Wind Powered Factories: History (and Future) of Industrial Windmills.” Resilience, October 20, 2009. https://www.resilience.org/stories/2009-10-21/wind-powered-factories-history-and-future-industrial-windmills/.