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Waterpower romance: the cultural myth of dying watermills in German hydro-narratives around 1900

Limmer, Agnes; Zumbrägel, Christian

Even in the twenty-first century, myths of preindustrial forms of energy utilization are woven around watermills, waterwheels, and traditional millscapes. Along German watercourses, many grinding shops and hammer mills held on to waterwheels and delivered mechanical rather than electric power well into the twentieth century. It is not the case that the days of these “old technologies” (Edgerton 2008) were numbered as soon as hydroelectricity and “modern” hydraulic turbines appeared in the 1880s. When analyzing the dominating contemporaneous discourses around hydropower, it is easy to overlook these tendencies of historical persistence. This is not surprising, considering that scientific, literary, and preservationist narratives around 1900––actively and subtly––propagated and spread the idea of Muehlensterben, or the myth of dying watermills that has been rehearsed over and over again in reflections on hydropower history. In this article, we challenge the popular imaginaries of “old” and “outmoded” watermills in a two-step approach. Firstly, we contrast the well-known transition at the advent of hydroelectricity with hydropower activities, which took place simultaneously in Germany’s traditional commercial landscapes. Here, waterwheels remained in good use, despite the electrification and scientific development of hydraulic turbines. Secondly, we deconstruct the romantic bias towards the preindustrial symbolism of the waterwheel by analyzing different arguments in professional journals as well as romanticizing and nostalgic literature. We combine approaches and empirical material of both historical and literary sciences to gain a better understanding of how different narratives reinforced the image of watermills and waterwheels being outdated. In this respect, the interdisciplinary approach contributes to the emerging field of the Environmental Humanities.
Published in: Water History, 10.1007/s12685-020-00252-6, Springer