Some technical detail

Though an Éolienne Bollée looks complicated compared with a traditional Beauce windmill, operation is simple. Wind passes through static deflectors to spin the rotor, operating the pumps through trains of gears and associated shafts. The secret of success lies in a small pivoting fan (known colloquially as the butterfly) that adjusts the turbine to face into the wind. The butterfly takes the turbine out of the wind while the gusts persist, and may even pivot far enough to engage a sprung latch. At this point, the turbine is edge-to-the-wind and pumping ceases until an attendant climbs the stairs to release the latch.

Éoliennes Bollée were not particularly powerful, as even the largest rarely generated more than three horsepower. Yet attention to detail, good workmanship and sturdy construction allowed them to lift water from depths of 100 metres or more. By 1888, more than 140 Éoliennes Bollée had been erected. With the exception of one machine in Saint-Germain-sur-Avre, which supplied public water fountains, almost all of them served the country estates of clients who could be as interesting as their purchases.

The first sale was made in 1872 to Viscount Jacques de Rougé of the Château des Rues in Chenillé-Changé; one machine was acquired by Étienne Bouvet, founder of Moc-Baril in Saint-Florent (a suburb of Saumur), once the largest sparkling-wine bottling business in the world; and another was commissioned by Alfred Dauprat of the Château du Breuil, near Chédigny. Dauprat had made his fortune working for Ferdinand de Lesseps, developer of the Suez Canal, and boasted Gustave Eiffel among his many influential friends.

In 1898, Auguste-Sylvain Bollée sold his wind-turbine business to Édouard-Émile Lebert - seven years after Ernest-Sylvain had been fatally injured by a horse-drawn tram - and retired to an apartment in Paris to paint. Lebert concentrated on sales to drought-stricken communes such as Cruzy-le-Chatel and Épuisay, preferring lofty pylons to the elegant columns, until the First World War interrupted production.

Above. The Mairie (town hall) of the village of Arthonnay, in the Département de l’Yonne, stood next to a No. 1 Lebert Éolienne (erected in 1899) and its pumphouse. The basement of the building originally served as the Lavoir, or public wash-house, but was walled-in when a second storey was added to the building in the inter-war years. From a picture-postcard in the collection of the late J. Kenneth Major.

Pre-1914 Éoliennes Bollée came in three sizes, ranging in diameter from 2.5 to 5 metres. Modular construction allowed them to be erected by a fitter and a few labourers, the parts being delivered by train and horse-and-cart. However, as the design of the buildings was left to local contractors, the pump-house and accompanying Lavoir (communal wash-house) ranged from simple corrugated-iron shelters to châteaux-in-miniature.

Work continued after the First World War, but concentrated more on repairing existing machines than erecting new ones. Lebert had passed the business on to Gaston Duplay, who was probably his brother-in-law, and Duplay was in turn succeeded by SAEB. Only a handful of Éoliennes Bollée date from the post-war era: the only survivor is the No. 2, built in 1926/7 in the grounds of the Château La Fredonnière, on top of an old pylon.

The wind turbine was patented in France in 1868 by Ernest-Sylvain Bollée, an engineer and Constructeur hydraulicien, but no Éoliennes of the original type survive and it is suspected that none other than a prototype — perhaps only a large model — were ever built. Testing would undoubtedly have shown the need for improvement, and the most important changes had been made by the time production began.

The ineffectual fan-tail was replaced by a small winding fan, the Papillon à mise au vent or Papillon orienteur, mounted in front of the turbine head; the main vertical drive-shaft and its bevel gearing were enclosed in the supporting column; the multi-part cast-iron column was strengthened by the attachment of a spiral staircase, giving access to the cap; and the unique construction of the turbine unit was greatly refined.

No trace has yet been found of any improvements other than Auguste Bollée’s 1885 Entonnoir or ‘wind deflector’, but this may simply be due to the quirky nature of French patent law and to the fact that the 1868 patent would still have had eleven years to run when production of Éoliennes Bollée began.

Above left: a drawing from the original 1868-vintage French patent granted to Ernest-Sylvain Bollée. No Éoliennes are known to have been made to this particular design.
Above right: a drawing from the 1885 French patent granted to Auguste Bollée to protect the Entonnoir or augmenter.

Work continued until the First World War, when many of the workers joined the army; a report on industry in Le Mans, dated 1917, suggests that only ‘war-work’ was being undertaken at that time. When the First World War ended, Lebert relinquished control (it is not known whether he died or had simply retired) to Gaston Duplay, who continued trading. The Éolienne Bollée in the grounds of the Château La Fredonnière is now known to have been erected in 1926–7, and, though Duplay’s independent operations ceased on the first day of 1926 — when succeeded by La Société Anonyme des Éoliennes Bollée (‘SAEB’) — he was nonetheless responsible for the La Fredonnière installation. SAEB erected a handful of machines, including at least two enormous 7m-diameter examples that stood in the Pas-de-Calais and another in Yonne, but it is assumed that operations ceased c. 1933; erection had certainly stopped when the Second World War began.

The engines were originally made in three sizes: Nos. 1, 2 and 3, with rotor diameters of 2.5m, 3.5m and 5m respectively. No. 2 was most popular prior to 1900, representing about half of all sales, but the 5m design was preferred by twentieth-century communal purchasers. Pumps were also standardised. A catalogue published in 1902 by Lebert lists seven piston diameters ranging from 33mm to 120mm, typical hourly water-raising capacity (assuming a constant wind of 6 m/sec and a head of 25m) being rated at 650 litres for the No. 1 turbine, 1500 litres for the No. 2 and 3600 litres for the No. 3.

A few examples of a ‘No. 4’ machine, with a 7m-diameter rotor unit, were made in the 1920s. At least two of these were installed in the Pas-de-Calais by La Société Anonyme des Éoliennes Bollée, but their fate (and the fate of others that may have been like them) is still unknown.

The elegant cast-iron columns were preferred by Auguste Bollée and his aristocratic patrons, and it is still a matter of debate whether any of the lattice-type quadrangular Pylônes were made prior to the transfer of business to Lebert in 1898. There is little evidence to suggest that Bollée ever contemplated pylon mounts.

Columns needed to be stayed in a way that the lattice towers did not, but the treads of the spiral stairs could be attached directly to the central 'spine', providing a compact and aesthetically pleasing solution, and height could be adjusted simply by adding another section. In addition, unlike the towers, columns protected the drive shaft and its bearing from wind or rain.

Above left: the original form of the Éolienne Bollée had a staircase spiralling around the central column. Machines of this type were especially popular until Lebert acquired the business in 1898. Photograph taken by Francis Bonneteaud in the summer of 2002.
Above right: the pylon-type Éolienne Bollée, seen here at Courville (erected in 1902), became increasingly popular when what had largely been private interest gave way to communal acquisitions after 1900. Photograph taken by John Walter in April 2001.

Pumps were enclosed in buildings that could range from an iron-roofed hard-standing, or a modest roundhouse, to the crenellated near-folly enclosing a column-type Éolienne at Le Clône à Pons-Gemozac (allegedly made from the remnants of two windmill towers) and the château-in-miniature in the grounds of the Château de Chaalis at Pomponne. However, surviving documents retrieved from the archives of comunes such as Dolus-le-Sec, Épuisay or Herbault reveal that the construction of the infrastructure was left to individual contractors hired by the client. This process extended to the wash-houses or Lavoirs, the pipework, the pump-house, and even the base and anchor-blocks of the Éolienne itself. The client was also responsible for collecting the components of the wind-engine from the nearest railway station! All Bollée, Lebert, Duplay or SAEB had to do was send an erector (usually accompanied by an assistant) to supervise the construction of the machine and ensure that it was left in working order.

Above left: the pumphouse of 1882-vintage No. 2 Éolienne Bollée in the grounds of the Château Bouvay-Ladubay, in the suburbs of Saumur, has an interesting ogee roof. Though a modern replacement for the original, destroyed in the 1980s, the building is said to follow the original pattern. However, the proportions — particularly the height of the pump-chamber walls — have been questioned. Photograph taken by John Walter in May 2002.
Above right: the water-tank of the Château les Clairbaudières, on the outskirts of the village of Paizay-le-Sec, was erected on an interesting two-storey base. It has been suggested that the projecting string-course marks this building as a former dovecot (pigeonnier). Photograph taken by John Walter in May 2002

Above: decoration on the pumphouse of 1887-vintage No. 2 Éolienne Bollée in the grounds of Bollee's own house in Arnage, a suburb of Le Mans. This once apparently had a slate roof, but this was eventually replaced with thatch that has now been lost. It is hoped that this particular installation — which is exceptionally significant in the context of the wind-engine's history — will be restored as part of the museum of water being created in Le Mans. Photograph taken by J. Kenneth Major in April 2002.

Water towers ranged from simple sheet-iron tanks raised on brick or timber plinths to spectacular-looking brick, stone or mass-concrete creations doubling as supports for the Éolienne. Among the most interesting were the tower/tank/pylon constructions pioneered by Lebert from 1906 onward. These could be found in places such as La-Barre-en-Ouche and Herbault, but only the privately-erected Manoir de la Touche (Indre-et-Loire) and Les Viviens (Loiret) machines survive in this form.

Above: the tank-mounted Éolienne of the Manoir de la Touche asks many unanswered questions. The design of the pylon is unlike Lebert's practise, and it is suspected that a Bollée power-head replaced an earlier single-rotor 'du type américan'. However, the latter would have been very short-lived for this theory to be tenable.