Wonder Contributors

We’re taking a look back at this Wonder question, thanks to Stacey and her class in North Carolina! Thanks, Wonder Friends!

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.

30 Join the Discussion

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  1. A water wheel is a way to crush grains by two wheels connected by cogs. One is in the water being spun by the movement of the water, the second moved by the first is very heavy and solid and crushes the grain.

    • What a WONDERful observation, Ben! We are SO HAPPY to learn more about the waterwheel and what it’s used for, especially grains! We hope you have a GREAT day filled with WONDERing! :)

  2. Dear Wonderopolis,
    I am excited to show your Wonderful website with a group of teachers today at the Ohio Innovative Learning Environment Conference. My students love your site. Thanks for helping us teachers and parents share the love of inquiry with the children in our lives.

    • We LOVE WONDERing with great teachers like yourself, Julie! Thank you for sharing our Wonders and inspiring curious minds all year round! We hope you have a STELLAR time at the conference and enjoy O-H-I-O! :)

  3. There’s a whole bunch of waterwheel boats by my house! I remember going on the boats. My uncle used to work for them, so I ended up driving for like 5 minutes. I think tomorrow’s WONDER is going to be about… I don’t know.

    Emily =)

    • WOW– that sounds like a SUPER adventure on the water, Emily! We think it’s AWESOME that you were in the driver’s seat, and learned about how waterwheel boats work, too! We’re so glad you enjoyed today’s Wonder and we hope you keep guessing with us for tomorrow’s newest Wonder! Thanks for sharing!! :)

    • Well, thank you for WONDERing with us today, Ashlyn! We are THRILLED that you liked today’s Wonder. Make sure to stop by tomorrow for another exciting and fun adventure in the land of WONDER! :)

    • Thanks for sharing with us, Caelah! How exciting to have a waterwheel so close to your hometown!! We hope your day is filled with more water Wonders! :)

  4. I’ve seen a waterwheel before when I went to St. Augustine (the first town ever discovered by Ponce de Leon) that place was amazing. I saw the fort, museum of pirates and Believe It or Not museum. I went to the light house and gators farm! :-D

    • We love that you share all your COOL adventures to new places, Carlos! And how RIGHT you are– St. Augustine is one of the oldest cities in the United States, thanks to Ponce de Leon! We appreciate your ENTHUSIASM for history and think it’s SUPER that you enjoy visiting museums to learn about how cities and states came to be. Your trip to St. Augustine sounds like a FUN-filled time. :)

  5. I am excited about using your WONDERful sight with my Second Grade class this year!!! LOVE, LOVE, LOVE it!!! What a great way to make learning fun and a way to share a wealth of information that integrates reading, writing, technology, and so much more!

    • What a WONDERful comment you’ve shared, Sherle! We are THRILLED to be a part of your class this year and cannot wait to continue WONDERing with your second grade students! Thanks for making us smile! :)

  6. Today’s WONDER is WONDERful!
    I think tommorow’s WONDER is going to be about… … the first few kings and queens?

    • We LOVE your excitement about our water-filled Wonder, Sophie! So glad you enjoyed it! You had quite the elegant guess… keep up the great WONDERing! :)

  7. Hi wonderopolis.

    I was fascinated about this wonder but not really into it. I loved it though. I loved that you could see all the machinery working, it was AWESOME!!!!! Thank you wonderopolis for making this awesome wonder.

    • Thanks for your comment about the origin of the waterwheel, Wonder Friend “S.” We are so excited that you’re WONDERing with us about AWESOME inventions, new and old! :)

  8. What did the very first Waterwheels look like? What were they made out of?
    I know a lot of old civilazations used stone…. how would they build a stone waterwheel.

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Have you ever wondered…

  • What is a waterwheel?
  • How does a waterwheel work?
  • Are waterwheels still used today?

Wonder Gallery

old water mill_shutterstock_62088799waterwheel-1waterwheel-2Vimeo Video

Try It Out

Isn’t it amazing how a waterwheel can turn the power of flowing water into electricity? Learn more about the science involved in this process when you explore one or more of the following activities with a friend or family member:

  • Curious about what old waterwheels look like? Satisfy your curiosity by heading to the Internet to view historic photographs in the Hanford Mills Museum Power and Technology Museum Gallery. Do you think it would’ve been difficult to build these waterwheels so long ago? Modern tools might make things much easier today, but what about back then? How do you think you would’ve gone about making a waterwheel without the modern conveniences of power tools? Have fun discussing this idea with your friends or family members.
  • When you’re ready to learn more about waterwheels and how they are used to power mills, jump online and visit the website of the Hanford Mills Museum to take an online tour of the mill site. If you had lived back then, do you think you would’ve thought to channel the power of flowing water to create energy to run a mill? Do you think it would be practical to rely upon waterwheels in today’s world? Why or why not?
  • If you want to see more waterwheels in action, check out these cool videos:

Still Wondering

National Geographic Xpeditions’ Splish, Splash: Water’s Journey to My Glass lesson explores the hydrologic cycle and water’s journey to our glass.

Test Your Knowledge

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