For thousands of years, people have been using the power of the wind: from billowing sails giving voyagers a chance to explore the world to simple weathervanes which let people predict incoming weather. Today, you’re more likely to head over to the Met Office website to find out if you need to bring an umbrella or hop on a plane when it comes to crossing the ocean, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not putting the wind to good use. As I sit at my desk and write this, 10% of the electricity being used across the UK is generated by the power of the wind. Around the UK, we’ve got 8,930 wind turbines spinning away so we can enjoy cleaner, renewable energy. With a total capacity of around 19.2 gigawatts, our 8930 wind turbines are enough to boil a kettle for a cup of tea over 10 million times!
Most of us don’t have a wind turbine in our garden and unless you’re a dedicated skydiver you probably don’t need to pay too much attention to which way the wind is blowing. That hasn’t stopped gardeners and designers around the world from incorporating the wind into their landscapes – from gently tinkling wind chimes to pond-side windmills. The most popular, however, is the wind spinner. These amazing kinetic sculptures are now more fashionable than ever thanks to the wide range of styles available and the way they lend themselves to both highly structured, contemporary gardens as well as more traditional lawns. Not only do wind spinners make amazing focal points in any garden, they’re also popular for their relaxing, almost hypnotic effect when spinning at full speed.
So where have these magical ornaments come from, and why are they so popular? Also known as Whirligigs, from the Middle English words whirlen (to whirl) and gigg (top), it’s hard to place exactly how far back people have been enjoying their spinning sails. The first English-Latin dictionary written in 1440 described the “whyrlegyge” as a child’s game: demonstrating this unique art form’s humble origins. These enigmatic pieces have a foggy history, but it’s generally assumed that they were invented by farmers or sailors who made their trade from windmills and weathervanes before exploring these projects on a miniature level.
For many years whirligigs were children’s toys, and weren’t all powered by wind. They could also be propelled through friction or string and the most popular were “button” whirligigs, also known as buzzers thanks to the noise they made when spinning. These simple toys would be made from a button or even a coin or piece of bone with one or two holes in the centre, through which string would be threaded and the whirligig spun.
String powered whirligigs more closely resemble modern spinning tops, and would be made to spin by wrapping string around the shaft of the toy then quickly pulling it away. Friction powered whirligigs, also known as a gee-haw whammy diddles, consist of two wooden sticks, one with notches cut into the side and a propellor or sails attached to one end. The toy works by rubbing the second stick up and down the first, over the notches, which generates enough energy to spin the propeller.
One of the the earliest European depictions of a whirligig in action is thought to be from a medieval tapestry which shows a small child holding a stick with four bladed propellers on one end and a hobby horse on the other. An oil painting by the artist Hieronymus Bosch dated between 1480 and 1500 shows a child walking with a frame and holding a paper whirligig in one hand. Art historians have debated for years on the identity of the child, but one critic claims that he represents the foolhardiness of those who had chosen to reject Christ’s teachings. In the 16th Century, whirligigs and windmills were often carried by fools and were sometimes used to represent ignorance and “loose living”. Two further paintings by Bosch show a hideous devil tormenting St. Anthony with the spinning toy pinned to his robe and another shows a child playing with a spinner, complacent about the struggle of Christ and the cross.
It’s not all bad, however, as several paintings from the 1500s explicitly depict Christ as a child playing with string-powered whirligigs, showing the popularity of the toy and the ever-shifting face of 16th century symbolism. This iconic toy – for it was rarely seen as more than a child’s play-thing – made its way into woodcuttings and images from the 1400s to the late 1500s as a tell-tale sign of childhood. It represented fickleness, the flighty infant who “turns with every breeze”.
While the earliest whirligig toys were popular in Europe, they’re now more closely associated with American folk art. Early American craftspeople perfected the art of the whirligig as it moved from being a simple toy to being a garden ornament that the whole family could enjoy. It’s speculated that whirligigs first found popularity as bird scarers – a miniature windmill or weathervane could be easily constructed and placed in a garden or field to scare away pesky birds even in a gentle breeze. These fairly utilitarian objects became smaller, more decorative, and soon transformed into something else entirely: the whirligig as we know it today.
No one is too sure when the humble weathervane evolved into the more popular whirligig and took over the American consciousness. Upon his return from the Revolutionary War, George Washington brought home “whilagigs” as gifts for his loved ones – although what sort of spinners these were no one is sure. In 1820, Washington Irving described a whirligig depicting a “little wooden warrior” battling against the wind on the roof of a barn in his horror collection “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, and by the early 1800s these intricate features were being used to decorate homes and buildings.
Whirligigs were often brightly coloured and depicted moving, articulated scenes from everyday life, war or folklore. The most simple was designed to look like a bird, with a pair of wing-like propellers, so in the wind it would appear that the bird was flying. They could show women washing or working a spinning wheel, characters riding bicycles or chopping wood. Others looked like mermaids “swimming” in the breeze. The only limit to these colourful contraptions was the imagination of the craftsman.
The American whirligig had a boom in popularity again in the 1930s as a way for farmers and craftsmen to earn a living during the depression. Easily made with scrap materials, one could sell them on for a dollar – enough to feed a family for a day! One of the most popular kinds of whirligig at the time was the simple pinwheel, usually made from cheap celluloid. These more basic spinners paved the way for wind spinners which turned with the breeze but did not have a complex mechanism or depict a scene, unlike the traditional whirligig.
With the invention of more efficient ways to manufacture steel – especially lightweight stainless or powder coated steel – making complex wind spinners became far easier, and craftspeople stepped away from traditional whirligigs towards the more complex results that could be achieved with a modern wind spinner. This started a new phase in the kinetic art movement towards kinetic sculptures: huge spinners made from metal designed to twirl in such a way that makes them resemble an optical illusion, twisting and bending in ways that at first seem impossible.
The most famous kinetic sculpture artist is Anthony Howe, who builds both enormous and miniature creations designed to move in the wind. His work is fluid, hypnotic and organic – despite the stainless steel construction. These impossible-looking giants are famous around the world for their precisely coordinated movements and innovative design which means they can perform even in strong winds.