The idea of using windmills to generate electricity occurred to many people in the late 19th century, but probably none were more prominent than British mathematician and physicist William Thompson (Lord Kelvin). Like Mouchot and Ericsson, Thompson worried about the finite nature of coal reserves. Once coal began to run out, wind power would be “utilized everywhere as the servant of man, free for every one, working silently as a great force while the world sleeps,” he said. Thompson was inspired, in part, by the first experimental electric wind turbine, built in 1887 in Glasgow, Scotland by James Blyth.
Among the first to employ wind power for generating electricity in the US was Charles F. Brush, an electrical inventor and businessman whose work contributed to the formation of General Electric Co. Brush was the leading expert in the design of electrical generators, and when his businesses proved successful in the early 1880s, he began building a wind generator for his farm near Cleveland, Ohio. The Brush wind generator was 55 feet (17 meters) in diameter. Lacking a notion of aerodynamics, the blades were configured in a fan shape, much like the Aeromotor water pumping windmills of the great plains. The wind turbine produced small amounts of electricity for 20 years and was prominently featured in publications like Scientific American.
While Brush understood the principles of electrical generation, he was not able to design an efficient commercial wind generator. The foremost early pioneer in wind turbine design was Poul La Cour, an inventor and director of the Danish Meteorological Society, who built one of the first practical and aerodynamically-efficient wind turbines in 1891. Using a four blade configuration for stability, similar to grain windmills typical of Holland and Denmark at the time, La Cour experimented with designs for light, high-speed wind turbines. Like agrarians in the European and US farm alcohol movement at this same time, La Cour believed in decentralized farm-based energy systems. By the early 20th century, 35,000 wind turbines were registered on Danish farms due largely to La Cour’s pioneering efforts.
In the US, early wind turbine developers had similar ideas about the value of decentralized, farm-scale energy systems. Two brothers from Minnesota, Joe and Marcellus Jacobs, opened a wind turbine factory in 1927. Their advocacy of small systems ran counter to the centralized rural electrification program of the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s.
There have been many other wind energy developments and programs, from the Smith Putnam wind experiment in 1941 in Vermont to the revival of interest in wind energy research and development in the 1970s, for example, in the Department of Energy’s wind program.
And there are environmental issues associated with wind turbines, especially the development of raptor-killing turbines in the Altamont Pass near San Francisco, California, in the 1990s and the Cape Wind controversy in the 2000s. Yet the declining cost of wind energy relative to fossil energy led to widespread development of wind turbines, especially in offshore locations and in the American Midwest.
Wind power also offers hope for developing nations, particularly in locations where centralized power systems are impractical. One recent story involves efforts of William Kamkwamba from Malawi, who built a windmill from junkyard parts as an inspiration for his village.
The underlying historical theme is that a crafts-based engineering culture proved to be the most durable foundation for a practical wind energy industry in the 20th century.