Draining Land, 18th-Century Style

September 3rd, 2018
Detail of Mr Colliers Wind-Mill

As Madison and Dane County cope with widespread flooding, we turn to earlier examples of water control – an 18th-century illustration of a windmill for draining land:

Pen and ink drawing of “Mr Colliers Wind-mill for raising water.” Ms 519. Department of Special Collections, Memorial Library, University of Wisconsin-Madison. Acquired through the Robert Stauffer Fund.

The illustration, headed “A description of Mr Colliers [sic] Wind-mill for draining Fenny Lands, raising the Water seven Feet and six Inches high. Plate 1. Fig. 1,” was rendered in ink on paper, well labeled with capital letters identifying individual parts of the mill but unsigned. The word fenny comes from fen, as defined in the online OED: Oxford English Dictionary: “low land covered wholly or partially with shallow water, or subject to frequent inundations; a tract of such land, a marsh,” as in “the fens: certain low-lying districts in Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire, and some adjoining counties.”

We know little about Mr. Collier, but do know he presented in 1858 models of two variations on windmills to the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce in London.

The practice of producing and presenting such models is described in Robert Dossie’s Memoirs of agriculture, and other oeconomical (or economical) arts, vol. 2 (London: Printed for J. Nourse, Bookseller to His Majesty, MDCCLXVIII [1768]). Dossie was himself much interested in “branches of useful knowledge, as nearly concerns all kinds of people, from the peer to the peasant,” and wrote much about chemistry: witness titles in both the Cole and Duveen collections in Special Collections.

As Dossie observed, “The Society have procured, by their premiums, bounties, or the favor of gentlemen, who have been incited to promote their views, a very sample collection of machines and models” (p. 314). Moreover, “…a future opportunity of exhibiting prints of the principal machines, and explaining their use and manner of application, will be taken” (p. 315).

Those “prints,” we presume, are the illustrations to be found in two editions of William Bailey’s description of the Society’s repository. In particular, Bailey’s self-published (and nominally anonymous) work, The advancement of arts, manufactures, and commerce or, descriptions of the useful machines and models contained in the repository of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce. Illustrated by designs on fifty copper-plates, vol. 2, “carefully corrected and revised by Alexander Mabyn Bailey” (London: printed for the author, and sold by Mr. Walter; Mr. Dodsley; Mr. Elmsly; and by T. Moore, 1779), contained a plate corresponding to our drawing. It preceded “Book III. Mechanics. Comprehending a short Account of such Mills, Models; and other Machines in the Society’s Repository, as are not yet delineated” (p. 37), and corresponded to a copious description of the features of the drawing (if not the operation of the mechanism) on pp. 37-39. That description was followed by two other plates, and more description.

A second edition of Bailey and Bailey’s descriptions of useful machines and models appeared in 1782, again in two volumes, as One hundred and six copper plates of mechanical machines, and implements of husbandry, approved and adopted by the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce (London: Printed for Benjamim [sic] White, 1782). There Collier’s mills made another appearance, including a plate corresponding to our drawing. Copies of William Bailey and Alexander Mambyn Bailey’s publications figure in two online resources, Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) and The Making of the Modern World.

The Society’s own Transactions, at least judging from a third edition (published in 1806), only listed Collier’s models: “XI. A Model of a Windmill for draining Land, by Mr. Collier, 1758. XII. Ditto by ditto, for the same purpose.” (vol. 1, 1783, pp. 309-322).

By the way, the Society itself, now termed the Royal Society of Arts, is still in operation, committed to a 21st-century form of enlightenment consistent with its concerns for improvement during the Age of Enlightenment. For its history, see such works as The virtuoso tribe of arts and sciences: Studies in the eighteenth-century work and membership of the London Society of Arts, edited by D.G.C. Allan and John L. Abbott (Athens: University of Georgia Press, [1992]) and Max Kent, The British Enlightenment and the spirit of the industrial revolution: The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (1745-1815) ( UCLA dissertation, 2007).

— Robin Rider