Common sails consist of a lattice framework on which a sailcloth is spread. The miller can adjust the amount of cloth spread according to the amount of wind available and power needed. In medieval mills, the sailcloth was wound in and out of a ladder type arrangement of sails. Postmedieval mill sails had a lattice framework over which the sailcloth was spread, while in colder climates, the cloth was replaced by wooden slats, which were easier to handle in freezing conditions. The jib sail is commonly found in Mediterranean countries, and consists of a simple triangle of cloth wound round a spar.
In all cases, the mill needs to be stopped to adjust the sails. Inventions in Great Britain in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries led to sails that automatically adjust to the wind speed without the need for the miller to intervene, culminating in patent sails invented by William Cubitt in 1807. In these sails, the cloth is replaced by a mechanism of connected shutters.
In France, Pierre-Thophile Berton invented a system consisting of longitudinal wooden slats connected by a mechanism that lets the miller open them while the mill is turning. In the twentieth century, increased knowledge of aerodynamics from the development of the airplane led to further improvements in efficiency by German engineer Bilau and several Dutch millwrights. The majority of windmills have four sails. Multiple-sailed mills, with five, six or eight sails, were built in Great Britain (especially in and around the counties of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire), Germany, and less commonly elsewhere. Earlier multiple-sailed mills are found in Spain, Portugal, Greece, parts of Romania, Bulgaria, and Russia. A mill with an even number of sails has the advantage of being able to run with a damaged sail and the one opposite removed without resulting in an unbalanced mill.
In the Netherlands the stationary position of the sails, i.e. when the mill is not working, has long been used to give signals. A slight tilt of the sails before the main building signals joy, while a tilt after the building signals mourning. Across the Netherlands, windmills were placed in mourning position in honor of the Dutch victims of the 2014 Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 shootdown.
A wind turbine is a windmill-like structure specifically developed to generate electricity. They can be seen as the next step in the development of the windmill. The first wind turbines were built by the end of the nineteenth century by Prof James Blyth in Scotland (1887), Charles F. Brush in Cleveland, Ohio (18871888) and Poul la Cour in Denmark (1890s). La Cour's mill from 1896 later became the local powerplant of the village Askov. By 1908 there were 72 wind-driven electric generators in Denmark, ranging from 5 to 25 kW. By the 1930s, windmills were widely used to generate electricity on farms in the United States where distribution systems had not yet been installed, built by companies such as Jacobs Wind, Wincharger, Miller Airlite, Universal Aeroelectric, Paris-Dunn, Airline, and Winpower. The Dunlite Corporation produced turbines for similar locations in Australia.
Forerunners of modern horizontal-axis utility-scale wind generators were the WIME-3D in service in Balaklava USSR from 1931 until 1942, a 100-kW generator on a 30-m (100-ft) tower, the Smith-Putnam wind turbine built in 1941 on the mountain known as Grandpa's Knob in Castleton, Vermont, United States of 1.25 MW and the NASA wind turbines developed from 1974 through the mid-1980s. The development of these 13 experimental wind turbines pioneered many of the wind turbine design technologies in use today, including: steel tube towers, variable-speed generators, composite blade materials, and partial-span pitch control, as well as aerodynamic, structural, and acoustic engineering design capabilities. The modern wind power industry began in 1979 with the serial production of wind turbines by Danish manufacturers Kuriant, Vestas, Nordtank, and Bonus. These early turbines were small by today's standards, with capacities of 2030 kW each. Since then, commercial turbines have increased greatly in size, with the Enercon E-126 capable of delivering up to 7 MW, while wind turbine production has expanded to many countries.
As the 21st century began, rising concerns over energy security, global warming, and eventual fossil fuel depletion led to an expansion of interest in all available forms of renewable energy. Worldwide, many thousands of wind turbines are now operating, with a total nameplate capacity of 194,400 MW. Europe accounted for 48% of the total in 2009.