Humans have been using wind power for at least 5,500 years to propel sailboats and sailing ships, and architects have used wind-driven natural ventilation in buildings since similarly ancient times. The use of wind to provide mechanical power came somewhat later in antiquity.
The Babylonian emperor Hammurabi planned to use wind power for his ambitious irrigation project in the 17th century BC. The ancient Sinhalese used the monsoon winds to power furnaces as early as 300 BC evidence has been found in cities such as Anuradhapura and in other cities around Sri Lanka. The furnaces were constructed on the path of the monsoon winds to exploit the wind power, to bring the temperatures inside up to 1100-1200 Celsius. An early historical reference to a rudimentary windmill was used to power an organ in the 1st century AD. The first practical windmills were later built in Sistan, Afghanistan, from the 7th century. These were vertical-axle windmills, which had long vertical driveshafts with rectangle shaped blades. Made of six to twelve sails covered in reed matting or cloth material, these windmills were used to grind corn and draw up water, and were used in the gristmilling and sugarcane industries. Horizontal-axle windmills were later used extensively in Northwestern Europe to grind flour beginning in the 1180s, and many Dutch windmills still exist.
In the United States, the development of the "water-pumping windmill" was the major factor in allowing the farming and ranching of vast areas of North America, which were otherwise devoid of readily accessible water. They contributed to the expansion of rail transport systems throughout the world, by pumping water from wells for the steam locomotives. The multi-bladed wind turbine atop a lattice tower made of wood or steel was, for many years, a fixture of the landscape throughout rural America.
The first modern wind turbines were built in the early 1980s, and have been subject to increasingly efficient design.