A water wheel is a machine for converting the energy of flowing or falling water into useful forms of power, often in a watermill. A water wheel consists of a wheel (usually constructed from wood or metal), with a number of blades or buckets arranged on the outside rim forming the driving car.
Water wheels were still in commercial use well into the 20th century but they are no longer in common use. Uses included milling flour in gristmills, grinding wood into pulp for papermaking, hammering wrought iron, machining, ore crushing and pounding fibre for use in the manufacture of cloth.
Some water wheels are fed by water from a mill pond, which is formed when a flowing stream is dammed. A channel for the water flowing to or from a water wheel is called a mill race. The race bringing water from the mill pond to the water wheel is a headrace; the one carrying water after it has left the wheel is commonly referred to as a tailrace.
Water wheels began being displaced by the smaller, less expensive and more efficient turbine, developed by Benoît Fourneyron, beginning with his first model in 1827. Turbines are capable of handling high heads, or elevations, that exceed the capability of practical-sized waterwheels.
The main difficulty of water wheels is their dependence on flowing water, which limits where they can be located. Modern hydroelectric dams can be viewed as the descendants of the water wheel, as they too take advantage of the movement of water downhill.