Harnessing the power of the wind is nothing new - it’s as old as a ship’s sail
These things we might now call windmills were first developed some time between the 7th and 9th century, in modern day Iran. There’s a reference to one in Yorkshire in 1185, though there might well have been some earlier in Europe too. They were possibly brought by crusaders, or - as it was a slightly different design - perhaps the Europeans came up with the idea themselves. Either way, it caught on. Partly because of the winds, but also because of the new economic opportunities it could offer to new people. In medieval England, for example, rights to waterpower were often confined to the very rich, so windmills offered something new for the middle classes.
Here’s a medieval illustration of a windmill, c.1340, which for some reason also seems to involve some sort of sex scandal and a giant mallet:
The history of turning wind into electricity is slightly newer, but not that new. For the pioneers of wind electricity, it was all about ways to bring electricity to people and places that otherwise wouldn’t have it, or a simple curiosity about what we could make electricity from.
We’ll start with James Blyth, born in 1839 in the village of Marykirk, a bit north of Dundee. Today, a lot of the local economy is weighted to the offshore oil industry, and it's just 50 miles south of that big golf course Trump gets his knickers in a twist about the wind turbines nearby. But in the 1830s, it’d be farming, fishing on the coast, some business around the universities, and the odd bit of whisky.
Blyth’s parents weren’t exactly rich - his dad was an innkeeper and farmer - but he got an education at the local school, and then won a scholarship to study in Edinburgh. He worked as a school teacher for a bit and, in 1880 got a job as a professor at Anderson's College in Glasgow.
Anderson's College sounds pretty amazing. It had been set up at the end of the 18th century in memory of radical physicist John Anderson who'd left some of his estate to set up a school for people who'd normally be left out of the university system. It offered part-time evening classes for working-class students, and admitted women on the same terms as men. It’s where David Livingstone - of “I presume” fame - trained, and George Birkbeck was also a professor there, before he moved to London and set up what’s now Birkbeck College. It’s now part of the University of Strathclyde.
Anyway, when he wasn’t working as a prof at Anderson’s College, Blyth had a holiday cottage back home in Marykirk. It was there, in 1887, that he built a cloth-sailed, 33-foot wind turbine and used it to charge a sort of battery which in turn powered the lights. It was the first house in the world to be powered by wind-generated electricity.
Here’s a picture of his machine. I’m not sure if that’s his wife standing by it. They look happy, whoever they are though.
So the story goes, Blyth tried to sell the idea to the local villagers to light the main street, but they branded these new-fangled sparks 'the work of the devil' and turned him away. Still, he got a patent for his invention, and managed to build another, slightly improved turbine for a nearby lunatic asylum, where it ran for the next 30 years, only being dismantled in 1914.
Around roughly the same time, over in the US, a Charles F. Brush was playing similar games. Born in 1849 on a farm about 10 miles from Cleveland, he loved science as a child, tinkering to build his own, home-made static machine. His parents managed to find the money to allow him to study, and after school, university and a PhD, he made a small fortune in electrical lighting, eventually retiring to a large mansion he’d built for himself on Euclid Avenue (aka Cleveland’s Millionaires' Row).
It was in his mansion that, in 1888, Brush built his 60 foot wind turbine. With 144 blades and about 1,800 square feet of surface area, all feeding a basement full of hundreds of jars which made up 12 batteries, it gave electrical lighting to his home - without failure - for twenty years.
I think it looks a bit like one of the monsters in Stranger Things.
If you’re thinking it’s weird Denmark’s not featured in this story yet, they’re up next. Enter Poul la Cour, he’s another inventor born on a farm, this one on the central east coast of Denmark, in 1846. He had initially wanted to be a priest, but wasn't good enough at languages, so ended up in meteorology instead. From meteorology, he got into the emerging technologies of telegraphy, and then - after a stint teaching science as part of the Danish Folk High school movement - wind power.
La Cour was excited about the possibilities of electricity, and keen other people would be too. Apparently he wrote a children’s book about electricity as ‘our great servant’. But he was worried - understandably - that the allure of electrification would draw more and more people into the cities, and wanted to find ways electricity could help and inspire the rural working class. For la Cour, wind power was the answer, especially considering how much of an abundant resource it was in Denmark.
With financial support from the Danish government, he worked to improve both wind turbine design, and ways to store electricity from it, and in 1895 used this tech to illuminate his local Folk High School. His designs soon spread throughout rural Denmark, not least through setting up training courses, the Society of Wind Electricians and a journal.
Meanwhile, back in the US, wind power was an established part of the rural economy. As Alexis Madrigal describes in his history of US green tech, it was particularly important in the arid West, where wind-powered irrigation could make the difference between starving and surviving. You could buy a cheap factory-built windmill, or make your own out of whatever local junk was to hand - nails, screws, bits of old buggies. As Madrigal describes, each town would have its own windmill style, often based on whatever the first person to build a mill in the area happened to have made, with neighbours swapping tips for tinkering.
Gradually wind started to catch on as a means for generating electricity too - offering lights, radio, and other appliances for people living in rural areas cut off from the electricity of cities. Brothers Joe and Marcellus Jacobs were a good example. They lived on the family ranch in the north east corner of Montana and, like many in their situation, they found it hard to keep refuelling their gasoline-based generator. They’d been playing about with old surplus WW1 aircraft, learning to fly and making propellers for sleds to get through the snow, and used this knowledge to build a wind generator too. After they own was such a success, they started building 'wind plants' for neighbouring farms and ranches, finally setting up the Jacobs Wind Electric Company in 1928, and opening a factory in Minnesota in 1932.
In 1933, when Richard Evelyn Byrd made a trip to Antarctica to set up a 'little America' base there, he took a Jacobs machine to give the camp radio and light.
But until the middle of the 20th century, wind power stayed reasonably small - often maintaining a fair bit of DIY, it was a way for remote sites to have power, it wasn’t going to light up cities. Wind power today is on a totally different scale. At the end of last month, Germany generated enough wind power one weekend, it gave consumers energy for free. Where I live, in England, we have a rather frustrating political block on onshore wind at the moment, but there’s been enough investment in offshore wind that on a good day - like today was - about a third of our electricity comes from wind.
How did we get from wind as a reasonably small scale way to offer remote communities some energy independance to the big player of today?
That’ll be in part two, in a fortnight.