Engines of Change: The Miller’s Tale

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Copenhagen, September 1636


Michael Skov had always been called a bookworm. Even as a student, he could always be found up to his elbows in books. He liked books, always some new nugget of information, always some new poetic vision. At the age of twenty-three, Michael had been considered a man for some time. He made his living by copying papers and doing odd tasks for the lawyers that abounded in Copenhagen.

WoC-TMT-bkwrmThen everything changed. Michael had a new life. One of the lawyers, Mathias Hendriksen, had just finished an interview with Michael, in which Mathias had laid out documents and told Michael that his uncle was dead, and Michael was the heir.

Michael was very surprised, because it was not just a few coins or some old dusty books. He was heir to the whole mill.

Michael’s family had owned the windmill, used for grain, for several generations. He had thought that Olaf, Uncle Ole’s own son, would inherit the mill. Now, Michael the bookworm was probably going to become Michael the Miller. It was a lot to take in. He walked out of the lawyer’s office in a daze.

Michael found himself on the street, outside. That’s where he saw his cousin Olaf. And they both came to tears again, and hugged each other. Michael and Olaf had always gotten along well. And since Michael’s father had passed when Michael was only eleven, he had moved in with Uncle Ole and Aunt Thora. So, from then on, Michael and Olaf were virtually brothers. Michael was two years older, but Olaf was much stronger and taller.

So Michael pulled back from his cousin and looked Olaf in the eye. “Olaf, why did he give me the mill? Shouldn’t it have gone to you?”

Olaf looked down, then firming his jaw he looked up and said, “Now Michael, the mill is yours not mine. I told my father that you would be the best one to take it over, because you are educated. You have new ideas, and modern attitudes. You understand the new type of bookkeeping. My wife and I feel that you will do the best job with the mill.”

Michael blinked like an owl. “Olaf, I don’t know what to say. You live at the mill. I don’t want to turn you out.”

Olaf shrugged. “My sisters and I all have other inheritances. It’s just Marie and me now. And without the responsibilities of the mill, I can follow my dream. I want to be a sailor, not just a sailor on the water. I’m looking to gain a berth on one of those new ships that fly through the air. You don’t have to worry, Marie is there, and she knows all about the mill. She can handle the apprentices as well. We just need you for the decision making. And you will be great at that. Indeed the mill is best yours.”

Michael listened, and realized that Olaf seemed relieved and was happy somebody would take the mill off his hands. Somebody who was family anyway. “Olaf, if you’re sure, I’ll do it. But how long have you known about this, and not told me?”

Olaf laughed. “Oh, about a year. I would have left long ago, but I wanted to be there for Father when he got sick. We invited you out to talk about arrangements, but you are always armpit deep in a pile of books, studying for this or for that. As a matter of fact father was quite gleeful in giving you the mill, saying that yes this would make that book worm learn a real trade. Father always thought you would be a great miller if you would just put your mind to it.”

Michael sighed. “I remember at the memorial service everybody seems so subdued, and I thought perhaps they were all worried about the inheritance.”

Olaf replied, “No, we all knew what he put in the will. The real problem is that father died so suddenly. We thought he was getting better, eating well, and working his way through a keg of beer every week. Then suddenly he started to cough and he died. It caused everyone in the family to stop and reflect. We were all sad and embarrassed because we never brought you closer into the family affairs.”

Michael Skov had tears in his eyes. “No, Olaf, it’s my fault. I knew that Uncle was not well, but I was selfish and kept at the books instead of attending to family. This is a shock, but it puts me back into the middle of family affairs now. It’s my responsibility to make sure that the mill continues to be successful.”

Olaf grabbed Michael, and they hugged for a while. Then Michael stepped back. “I will move out to the mill today. I hope you come out every day until you leave on voyage, and Marie will be there each morning to make sure everything is up and running. Tell your sisters and your mother, don’t be strangers, come around.”

Olaf said goodbye, and hurried away. Michael opened his leather folder of papers, sorted through reassuring himself that yes indeed he was now the master of Glostrup Mill. He went home and started packing books.

Michael realized as he loaded books into a rented cart that his father would be proud of him. Before he lost his parents, both of them had been worried about him. He’d been only twelve, and looked a little sickly because he never went outside, but stayed at the bookshop, reading. Now he was a businessman. He followed the oxcart out of town towards the northern coast.

The mill was only about an hour and a half walk from the middle of the city. That made the mill very popular, especially for townspeople coming for flour and farmers bringing their grain to be ground. The road was familiar. Michael had walked it many times. And he felt guilty that he hadn’t been to the mill for two years. But he consoled himself with the thought that even a miller would have time to read now and again.


When he arrived at the mill, Michael was astonished to see how much had changed. The mill was the same, but now there was a large building under construction between the mill and the coast. He stood, staring as the ox driver unloaded his things into a pile in the mill-yard. Michael had always thought that piece of property belonged to his uncle, but now there was an enormous house being built there. Marie came out of the mill office, and saw Michael. “So you’re here.” She hugged him, and started shouting for apprentices to come and carry ‘the owner’s’ things into the house.

Michael pointed at the house. “When did that happen? I thought that Uncle owned that piece of land.”

Marie shook her head. “You need to talk to Gustav. I think he’s up in the tower, repairing a sail.”

So Michael climbed the stairs. Gustav Svendsen was the mill boss. He had started as an apprentice, and when Uncle Ole moved into town, Gustav took on more and more responsibility.

When Gustav spotted Michael, he hurried over, wiping his hands on a rag. “Herr Skov, I’m glad you’re here.”

Michael shook Gustav’s outstretched hand. “So you already knew as well? I guess I am the last to find out.”

Gustav nodded solemnly. “Yes, I think so. Your Uncle Ole also said you’d probably want all of the people working here to stay on. He said we’re all family. I guess we are all related anyway.”

Michael was a little distracted, waiting for Gustav to slow down, so he could ask his question. “What? Of course, of course everybody stays. I can’t possibly do all this work by myself. It’s too much work for one person. I certainly don’t know enough to keep this place running as well as you manage.”

Gustav sighed. “I’m glad you’re here now. Your uncle did the books himself. The last time I saw him, he told me he was giving you the mill, and he said then, ‘Michael will make a good mill owner. He is adept with figures and if anybody can make this mill pay, he can.’ So we are all depending on you Michael. You must save the mill.”

Michael said, “Wait a minute, what do you mean? Are we in danger of losing the mill? It has been here for generations. And as far as I knew it always made money. What’s the problem?” Gustav pointed out at the house Michael had seen earlier. “It’s that house. I told your uncle for years, that he needed to buy that piece of land. But your uncle always said nobody in their right mind would build there, the high sea winds at the storm season would always shatter anything built that close to the water. Why spend good money on property nobody else wants? Then a count from East Skorna bought the land. He decided he wanted a view, then spent a good deal of money to build a house where he can entertain guests from Copenhagen.

“We don’t mind a neighbor who is never at home. But the house is so large that it’s creating a wind shadow in front of our windmill. Now, day by day, we are lucky if we can get the sails to turn for more than an hour a day. We can only work when the wind is blowing from just the right direction. We’ve got to do something.”

Michael found a place to sit. “Has anybody talked to a lawyer? I’m sure the mill has some kind of rights. The family built this mill on a royal land-grant.”

Gustav just grinned. “Rights to the wind? Do you think we can get that enforced? Some of our kings might have thought so. I remember when I was a young boy we had a water wheel. That canal right there used to power the mill. Then the city took that water right and sent the water into town for people to drink. We were even paid a serious amount of money for the water right. We still had to rebuild the mill with wind power. As far as I know, we don’t have any papers that say that we’re granted the right to the wind.”

Michael frowned. This would be a thorny problem. “What about that owner over there? Is there any chance to negotiate?”

Gustav shook his head, and went back to repairing one of the sections of sail. “That man? He comes from a powerful Swedish family. We still have money in reserve, and we’re doing all right this summer because the wind has come from the right direction. But if we try to work this out in court, he will bury us with lawyers until our money runs out, and then we’ll have nothing.”

Michael wandered back to the mill office. Before anything, he had to see the books and find for himself the state of the business. As the afternoon waned, he began to see the situation as a problem to be solved. The harder he considered it, the more it became apparent that there had to be something he could do.


Surprisingly, Michael found the accounts of the mill in fairly good order. He felt as if Uncle Ole had seen the time when Michael would have to take over and had made great efforts to put things together so that Michael could understand them. As he went through the books, Michael could see that his uncle had an orderly mind, and so there were various accounts. One account was for the money received for milling, another for flour in lieu of cash payment, another one for flour sold to the bakers in the city, another one for improvements to the mill and maintenance, and another one for living expenses for everybody involved in the operation. There was even an emergency account with a relatively large sum of money in it, at least as far as the mill was concerned. Michael was sure that some Swedish noble who could afford to buy land this close to Copenhagen had enough money to make it look trivial. Nonetheless, he looked at the books in the hopes of finding some solution to the problem of wind for the mill.


Michael’s first attempt to remedy the loss of wind seemed obvious to him. Michael simply thought, let’s just build the windmill taller.

Michael hurried downstairs shouting for Gustav. “I know, let’s make the tower taller. That way the sails of the windmill will be above the house, and we will be able to collect the wind just like before.”

Gustav’s face fell, and Michael knew there was a problem with his brilliant solution. Gustav said. “That’s the first thing one thinks. Indeed if we could build the tower taller we would be able to catch the wind as before. We even ordered some long timbers to extend everything. The single largest problem, though, is the bearing at the base of the main shaft, which runs the entire height of the tower up to the squirrel cage there. That transfers the movement of the sails to the shaft. Come, let me show you.”

WoC-TMT-mkkshftThey climbed down into the basement of the mill, and Gustav pointed to a metal plate at the base of the main shaft. “Look here. When this plate was installed, it was flat. But see the distortion? That’s from the weight of the main shaft. If we install a taller main, this metal cup at the bottom will burst, and possibly bring the whole mill down on our heads.”

Michael frowned, staring up into the center of the mill. But Gustav wasn’t finished. “The other problem is almost as bad. If we add any more sections into the shaft, we lose power. The more the length there is to twist, the more the shaft takes power away from the machinery. To be sure we get a little bit back as it untwists, but the longer the shaft, the less real power we get. Your great-great-grandfather built the tallest windmill on the coast. So taller is less efficient. And if that isn’t enough, that Swedish noblemen, when he saw the wood that we were gathering to extend the height of the tower, stormed over here in a fit. He threatened a lawsuit because, as he put it, he didn’t want any ugly windmill sail fluttering in the windows of his house.”

Michael was crestfallen. “Are you sure? It seemed such an elegant solution.”

Gustav took Michael back to the office, and pulled down a roll of plans. “Here is what we tried. See for yourself.”

When Michael saw the mathematical calculations, he immersed himself. It didn’t take very long at all for him to see that first, making the tower taller would be difficult because they would need more land at the bottom to spread out the supports. Second, the strain and stress was already at the maximum capacity of the materials on hand.

After about an hour, Michael surfaced from the calculations and went back to Gustav. “There has to be an answer. Perhaps I could find something from that place in Germany, the Ring of Fire. They have so much knowledge, four hundred years worth or so.”

Gustav stood, wiping his hand on a rag. “There are some of those people that work for the king now. They’re building some strange thing. Perhaps they have something. And if not, the king has a book called an encyclopedia. I haven’t seen it, just heard, you know. But it has lots of that four hundred years in there. It might have something in there if you can get access to it.”

Michael’s jaw set. He stood up and straightened his doublet. “Thank you, Gustav. Those are good ideas. I have a professor or two that may get me in to see it. While I’m gone, do all the milling you can right now. Build up our reserves.”


Michael had already planned to return to his apartment in the town to finish packing. There were still a lot of books and papers. While he worked, his mind wandered. Here he was at a crossroads.

He was no longer an academic, but a man of the world, a business owner. He was amazed at the amount of paper he had accumulated. Paper was expensive, and Michael was not about to let a single sheet out of his grasp. You never knew what might be useful, he thought.

His musings were interrupted by a knock at the door. Michael called out, “It’s open, come on in.” At the door was Peter, Gustav’s nephew or grandson or something, about fifteen years old. Michael made a note to himself to get to know everybody again.

Peter said, “They sent me out to help you move.”

Michael smiled. “Did you walk all the way, or did you get a ride?”

Peter smiled as well. “I got a ride as far as the gate, but I got lost. Sorry I’m late.”

Michael clapped his hand on Peter’s shoulder. “It’s still early afternoon. Let’s get the cart loaded and then perhaps we can go get something to eat. I’ve heard of a new place down on the docks, and they say it’s run by an American. It serves things nobody has heard of before. I want to try something new. And, you never know, we might find what we’re looking for.”


They left the loaded cart outside the door of the tavern. Peter seemed taken a little nervous. “There are so many people. Perhaps we should just head home.”

Michael said, “Come on, Peter. It isn’t as crowded as you think. Now, if we couldn’t get in the door, and it’s ten people deep at the counter, that would be crowded.. Let’s go see what they have.”

Michael led the way into the tavern. He found a small table and sat down, pointing to the other chair for Peter. “A friend of mine came here last week, and he ate something called a brownie. I don’t know what it is exactly, some kind of pastry. He said it was made of chocolate from the Americas, a really new unique flavor. Perhaps there is one we can share. He said that we must try a hot beverage with this chocolate. He tried some and found it strong, but pleasant. And after he drank it, he was able to stay up all night, studying.”

As they sat down, Peter pointed to a large crowd in the corner, over by the outside window. “I know one of those men. I wonder what they’re looking at.

Michael looked as well. “I think most of those men work for the Danish airship company, probably in the shops because they are wearing that strange sort of doublet.”

That was when the girl popped up next to their table for their order. Michael said, “Do you have a brownie today?”

She nodded. “We haven’t run out yet.”

Michael said, “Fine, bring one, and two hot chocolates.”

Peter stared intently at the corner, and didn’t seem to see the pretty girl at his elbow. After she left, he stood up, staring. “Herr Skov, look at that. What are they doing?”

Michael looked back to the corner. The men placed something on their table. It was some sort of machinery, and they clamped it to the edge of the table facing the window. Then, on the window sill they set up another machine that looked like a stove of some kind. They were attaching copper pipes from one to the other.

Now they were both standing. Michael said, “Stay here, and wait for our order. I need to see this.”

Michael stood, watching the floor show until Peter tugged on his sleeve. The brownie and the chocolate had arrived, and it wasn’t the girl, it was the American woman. Michael swept a courtly bow, and said, “Frau Pridmore, I wouldn’t think that you would be working as a serving girl.”

Reva Pridmore laughed as she set the tray on the table. “Well, she got bogged down, and I didn’t want your chocolate to get cold.”

Michael and Peter sat down, and sipped their steaming cups. Frau Pridmore waited, then said, “So, what do you think?”

Michael sipped again. “There is something in this that I have never experienced before. The chocolate is wonderful, and just as I read about. But what is it that is making my eyes water?”

Reva Pridmore chuckled. “We found some dried chili peppers in the same cargo with the cocoa beans, It seemed a shame not to try them. When my husband and I were younger, we traveled to the southwest portion of the North American continent and came to love their hot chiles there. We miss them now, so it was a great surprise to find these.”

Michael said, “I can understand wanting some flavor in life, but you seem to think that the chile chocolate mixture as mild. I hesitate to think of the effect of something you would consider spicy. It would probably make my eyes glow.”

Frau Pridmore grinned. “Well they used to pack small chilies in jars, and young men would eat hot chilies and drink beer until they fell over. Those chilies were so hot that I had to leave the room when the jar was open. These aren’t anywhere near that hot.”

Michael said, “Then perhaps I am an old man, because such activity just does not sound like fun to me.”

Peter sat blinking like an owl. “It is only right, Sir. A miller should be a respected mature man. People must trust you, and wild young men are known to be untrustworthy.”

Michael noticed that Frau Pridmore was watching the men in the corner of the room, so he turned to look as well. They heard someone shout, “Hold my chocolate, watch this!”

There was a cloud of steam, then something that looked remarkably like the sails of a windmill began to rotate rapidly. They all heard a deep rumble. The sound picked up and gained in pitch, as the blades of the device began to blur.

It startled Michael when one man’s hat was blown off of his head and out the window. Michael called over his shoulder as he ran toward the machine. “I’ve got to see this.”

In the crowd around the noisy machinery, Michael heard someone talking about how big the engine could be made, or how small, how much power it had. He absorbed the words, but couldn’t take his eyes off the machine. From where he stood, he could feel the pull of the breeze blowing out the window. And that was when two things in his mind found each other. This machine made wind, and he needed wind.

He hurried back to his table, gulped his chocolate, and shoved the brownie in his pouch. “Peter, come with me. We have got to find out about this machine. It could be our answer to everything.”

Michael elbowed his way to the front of the crowd, and asked one of the workmen, “This machine, what does it burn? A device like this looks very useful to me but only if it can burn something I have. I cannot afford to use some exotic fuel that is only available from the Germanies.” The man at the table smiled slowly. “Well, the big machines on the airship, they burn oil. We get it for a good price because we’re not too choosy. However on the trip the airship took to India and back, they had to burn several different things. In Venice they picked up several tons of olive oil. They got it cheap because it had been contaminated. But it burned just fine. In Tranquebar when they needed more fuel, they bought something that the Indians called ghee. They said it was butter, but it was liquid. The truth is, almost anything that burns and provides heat, can be used as fuel in this steam engine. I’ve heard of people burning tightly bundled straw, sea coal, driftwood, almost anything. I suppose you could even burn peat, like the Scotsmen do. The real answer is to have something that burns hot.”

As Michael listened, the airship companies man’s words about straw struck home. Most farmers just plowed the straw back into the fields. A large field of wheat produced so much straw that only some of it was useful around the farm. Indeed dried straw was good for almost nothing but animal bedding and making bricks. The straw had almost no nutrition in it, so animals did not thrive from eating it. Many times straw was just left to rot in the compost heaps and used for fertilizer. He said, “Straw, and the chaff left over from the milling, would it work if we compressed those into bricks?”

The shop foreman, Jens Dalgaard, heard the question and came to answer it. “Well, I don’t know for certain. We would have to run some tests. But I think there’s a chance.”

By the time they left the tavern that evening, Michael had a promise from Dalgaard to send them a letter about how big a machine they might need to run the mill and how much it would cost. He felt hopeful. They had gone to the chocolate shop to relax and put their troubles to the side. But perhaps now he could save the mill.


In the weeks that followed Michael’s purchase of a steam engine, Gustav and his crew built a platform above the milling area and prepared a set of gears. These were like the gears from the sails that transferred motion to the shaft, but were set up on the platform, waiting for the engine.

Gustav described the process to Michael. “What we are going to do is get the engine, set it up on the platform, and make sure it runs. When we are certain, we will cut the shaft to the sail and attach that half of the drive gear to the other half of the gear on the engine. Then we will see if it can turn the wheel. I know you ordered a strong engine, but I really wonder if it will actually deliver the power of one hundred and fifty horses to our shaft. That may be more power than sails ever delivered. We will need to be careful.”

Michael and Gustav heard a commotion outside, then Peter popped into the gear room. “It’s here! It’s here! The wagon from the airship company is here.”

Michael and Gustav hurried down the ladder. Outside sitting on the bed of the wagon was a large machine, almost shoulder-high and as wide as two men. On the ends were loops formed out of metal, so the engine could be lifted into the air. The cart also contained the steam-making device and bundles of copper pipe.

Herr Dalgaard saw Michael and came to greet him. “Here is your engine, Herr Skov. My men are here to help you install it in your mill.”

Michael was grinning like an idiot, then remembered he was a respected business owner and shook the foreman’s hand. “You are right on time. We have everything ready.”

It seemed as if every idle man and boy had followed the cart from Copenhagen to watch. They waded through the crowd, then Michael introduced Gustav to the foreman, and the two climbed the ladder to survey the preparations.

Michael stood back out of the way. It was not his place to be in the middle of the sweat and strain and the waving of wrenches. He went to his office, and watched through his window. But he had Peter run back and forth with news of every move.

“A lot of the men walked into the mill to watch. Don’t worry, Erik is keeping order. The foreman looked at everything we’ve done and decided to put the steam generator on the outside of the wall in its own room.”

Michael stood up and strode to the window. He could see the foreman and Gustav laying out an outline for a small room outside the wall of the mill. “Why would he do that? There is plenty of room for that machine inside the mill. Go ask Gustav for an update.”

Peter ran down the stairs and out into the yard. Michael could see him speaking with Gustav. The older man looked up at his window and nodded, and Peter came running back. The boy arrived in the office a little breathless. “Grandpa said that it was all right. They moved the generator outside so that the fire cannot get into the mill. They will run the steam supply lines through the wall, and up to the engine on the platform.”

Michael sat down again. “That makes sense. I approve. Go find out what they are doing next.”

Peter kept it up all morning. He told Michael that they needed to wrap the steam lines in something to contain the heat, because if the heat goes away from the steam, no useful work would be performed. Michael said, “I saw all those old scraps of sail in the store room. Go ask if those would be acceptable.”

Obediently, Peter ran out. When he came back, he said, “Grandpa likes that idea, but he is telling the apprentices to make canvas tubes from the scrap, and then when they are on the pipes, we will stuff them with straw. On the airship, they use rope wrapped around the pipes, then an outer layer of canvas. But the engine foreman says straw is acceptable. The pipes will never get hot enough to char the straw, and the air spaces in the straw will hold the heat in nicely.”


It took the rest of the week and plenty of beer before the installation was complete. Then Peter was sent to bring the mill owner to watch. Michael put on his hat and fine black coat and went to the mill.

The generator was set up outside, the pipes through the wall were attached to the engine, all the joints soldered tightly and covered in their canvas sleeves and stuffed with straw. A fire burned in the generator, and the new smokestack carried the smoke up and away from the mill.

With a bit of ceremony, Michael, Gustav, and Herr Dalgaard climbed to the platform. The representative bowed. “Herr Skov, will you do the honors? Just pull the throttle.”

Michael was a little bit apprehensive, but he didn’t let it show. It was something he had wanted to try for a long time. “Certainly.” He put his hand on the handle.

Dalgaard kept his voice low. “Pull it smooth and even, then stop where I have marked on the wall. That should do it.”

Michael smoothly pulled it towards him. There was a hiss, then the machinery jerked into motion. It was slow at first but accelerated. The steam hissed, and the shaft groaned for a moment, then started to turn.

WoC-TMT-mllstnEveryone hurried up the stairs and watched as Gustav engaged the mill wheels, and fed wheat into the hopper. The mill wheels spun. The stones ground the wheat just as if the wind was blowing. Everyone broke into cheers.

After that, it was a festive occasion. Everybody had to take a turn at controlling the engine. Gustav was amazed that he could spool the engine up and spool it back down whenever he wanted. It was smooth and easy. A brick building would eventually be built around the steam generator.

The mill was finally independent of the wind. Michael’s inheritance was secure.




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