Austrian was First with Wind-Electric Turbine Not Byth or de Goyon

By Paul Gipe

The first person to generate electricity with a wind turbine was neither Scottish nor French as was previously believed. He was Austrian, according to documents uncovered by French wind authority Philippe Bruyerre.

Austrian Josef Friedländer installed a Halladay windmill for driving a dynamo at the Vienna International Electrical Exhibition in 1883. Friedländer’s 22-foot (6.6-meters) diameter Halladay “wind motor” was supplied by U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co. of Batavia, Illinois. The five horsepower windmill drove a dynamo at ground level that fed electricity into a series of batteries. The batteries powered various electrical tools and lamps, as well as a threshing machine. The windmill was backed up by a Robey & Co. steam-powered traction engine during windless days. Friedländer’s windmill and its accessories were prominently installed at the north entrance to the main exhibition hall.[1] [2]

Friedlander side view 01
Josef Friedländer’s Halladay wind motor at the Vienna International Electrical Exposition in 1883.

Freidlander top view 01
Plan view of Josef Friedländer’s Halladay wind turbine. “American windmotor that operates machines and batteries with an electric dynamo.”

Bruyerre’s discovery, summarized in his recent book Rétrofutur : une autre histoire des machines à vent, turns on its head our understanding of who was first with wind energy in the 1880s.[3] See 1883 : An electrical wind turbine in Vienna for more details.

Previously, there were dueling claims as to who was first to produce wind-generated electricity. Though Charles de Goyon, the Duc de Feltre, and his collaborators filed a patent in 1886 for using a multiblade farm windmill to generate electricity to store in batteries, they didn’t install their 40-foot (12-meter) diameter Halladay turbine until the fall of 1887 on the coast of France, a few months after James Blyth installed his wind turbine at Marykirk north of Edinburgh, Scotland in July 1887.[4] [5] [6]

James Blyth’s windmill in 1891 from Wikimedia. Image originally copied by Peter Musgrove.

It wasn’t until 1888 that American industrialist Charles Brush installed his massive 56-foot (17-meter) diameter, multiblade windmill for lighting his estate in Cleveland, Ohio.[7] [8]

Brush Dynamo on the estate of Charles Brush outside Cleveland, Ohio. Western Reserve Historical Society.

Friedländer’s installation was four years before that of Blyth or de Goyon and five years before that of Brush.

Interestingly, de Goyon used a Halladay “wind motor” or power mill from U.S. Wind Engine & Pump Co. like that used by Friedländer. There’s no evidence yet that de Goyon or his colleagues had attended the Vienna exposition in 1883. However, American farm windmills were widely used in the British Isles and on the continent and if someone wanted to use the wind to generate electricity these mills would first come to mind.

Unlike reciprocating wind pumps, power mills transferred rotating power to ground level where shafts and belts could transfer power to various mechanical devices. It would be a relatively simple matter to attach a belt to a dynamo on the ground for producing electricity.

In contrast, Blyth attempted to adapt a more traditional four-bladed windmill with cloth sails to his use. He quickly abandoned that concept and then tried a multiblade farm windmill. That too proved unsatisfactory. He then opted instead for a vertical-axis design using four buckets to turn a dynamo because the drag device would be self-limiting. It was this wind turbine that made him famous.

Historian Etienne Rogier found that de Goyon’s installation didn’t survive the winter.[9] Meanwhile, Byth’s crude VAWT continued to operate for some time.[10] [11]

We have yet to find any evidence that Friedländer installed any further examples after the exposition closed. The only information we have is that by W.H. Burnham of U. S. Wind Engine & Pump Co. who wrote in 1891 that, according to his agent at the site, “the operation of this mill seemed quite satisfactory at that time, although it was to the effect that storage batteries were then so expensive as to make it almost impractical to use wind power for this purpose.” Significantly, Burnham goes on to write that the company had experimented with using wind to generate electricity and planned to do so again in the near future.[12] Burnham would have been familiar with Brush’s giant wind turbine in Cleveland by then.

Unfortunately, batteries remained expensive, there were very few distribution networks at the time, and managing the variable power from the wind was a constant challenge. If not for these obstacles, history might have taken a different course.

[1] Leonhardt, Ernst Rudolf. Die internationale elektrische Ausstellung Wien 1883: unter besonderer Berücksichtigung der Organisation, sowie der baulichen und maschinellen Anlagen. Freiberg i.S: Freiberg i.S. : Craz & Gerlach, 1884.

[2] Leonhardt, Ernst Rudolf. “Wochenzeitschrift des ö. Ingenieur- und Architektenvereins.” In Die internationale elektrische Ausstellung Wien 1883, 4 No 30:211–15. Vienna, 1883.

[3] Bruyerre, Philippe. Rétrofutur : une autre histoire des machines à vent. Paris: Atelier 21, 2022. Pages 104-105.

[4] Rogier, Etienne. “The First Wind Generator in France, 1887.” Windmillers’ Gazette, 2019. Pages 4-5.

[5] Price, Trevor J. “James Blyth — Britain’s First Modern Wind Power Pioneer.” Wind Engineering 29, no. 3 (May 1, 2005): 191–200.

[6] Garisto, Daniel. “July 1887: James Blyth Harnesses the Wind for Electricity.” This Month in Physics History, August 31, 2022.

[7] Righter, Robert W. “Brush’s Mammoth Dynamo.” In Wind Energy in America, 42–58. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

[8] Gallica. “Le Génie Civil : Revue Générale Des Industries Françaises et Étrangères,” September 5, 1891.

[9] Rogier, Etienne. “Les pionniers de l’électricite éolienne.” Systèmes Solaires, 1999. Pages 72-73.

[10] Price, Trevor J. “James Blyth — Britain’s First Modern Wind Power Pioneer.” Wind Engineering 29, no. 3 (May 1, 2005): 191–200.

[11] Twidell, John. “Biographical Notes on James Blyth.,” April 3, 2014.

[12] Burnham, W.H. “Electricity from Wind Power: Windmills for Generating Electricity. Taming the ‘Free Force’ of the Air–An Austrian Experiment with American Mills.” In Moore’s Rural New-Yorker, L:113. New York, NY: Rural Publishing Company, 1891.