Since the dawn of human history, humans have turned to Earth’s natural forces for the power to do tasks beyond their limited capabilities. Even today, scientists constantly seek new ways to harness Earth’s energy to produce power from renewable resources.

Today, we’re going to take a closer look at one invention from the past that used the power of running water to help with a variety of tasks. What was it? The waterwheel, of course!

Waterwheels are machines that convert the energy of flowing or falling water into power that can be used to do other tasks. If you’ve ever seen waterwheels, you know that they are usually large wheels made of wood or metal that have many blades or buckets along the outside edge to capture the power of moving water.

Waterwheels are usually positioned vertically (up and down), so that their movement turns an axle positioned horizontally (side to side). The axle transfers its energy to a drive belt or system of gears that operate a mechanism to do work of some sort.

Waterwheels are devices first created by the ancient Greeks over 3,000 years ago. Although waterwheels were still used often in the early part of the 20th century, they’re not used very often today. You can still see them in action, though, as part of historical exhibits at museums across the United States.

Waterwheels had many important uses in the past. Some waterwheels were built alongside grist mills to help mill flour. Others were built near paper mills to help grind wood into pulp to make paper. Waterwheels were also used for a wide variety of other purposes, including hammering iron, crushing ore and preparing fiber to make cloth.

Waterwheels require a nearby source of flowing or falling water. These sources could include streams or small rivers. Occasionally, special ponds — called mill ponds — would be built by damming a flowing stream. A special channel — called a mill race — would be created from the pond to the waterwheel, so that flowing water could be accessed any time the waterwheel was needed.

Today, the idea behind the waterwheel is still used. Modern hydroelectric dams still use the power of flowing water to create electric power with the help of modern machines called turbines.

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