Die Geschichte der Windenergienutzung 1890-1990 (The History of Wind Energy Utilization 1890-1990) by Matthias Heymann

By Paul Gipe

As the title suggests, Die Geschichte der Windenergienutzung is in German and well beyond my rudimentary knowledge of the language — and frequently the dictionaries we have on hand. I have attempted to translate several very short passages that I thought conveyed some of Heymann’s themes and I’ve reviewed some sections with which I am familiar in English. I welcome comments from native speakers of German on Heymann’s work, especially on the sensitive subject of collaboration by engineers with the Nazi war machine.

Note: In moving this article to a new web site the date was inadvertently keyed in as January 1, 2004. The earliest record I have of this article is May 22, 2001. It is likely that the article was written in the mid to late 1990s. I knew of Heymann’s work since at least 1990. Reference to Bob Righter’s book dates this piece to later than 1996 when his book was published. Why the dates have become more important is that this review was cited by Craig Morris in an article The “technical maximum” of wind power – in 1995 published April 30, 2013.–Paul Gipe

Like Righter in his Wind Energy in America, Heymann places the development of wind energy in its historical context, that is, within the political currents of the day. In his description of Danish development of wind energy, for example, Heymann places Poul la Cour, the Danish Edison, within the social context of the religious philosophy espoused by Grundtvig and exhibited in the folk high school movement that is still a part of the Danish cultural landscape.

American readers will find two sections particularly intriguing: development of wind energy in Germany during the Third Reich, and a critical comparison of the German, U.S., and Danish wind energy programs in the modern era.

Die Geschichte der Windenergienutzung contains the most extensive discourse to date on the Third Reich’s interest in wind energy and an unflattering matter-of-fact description of attempts by some of the grand names in German wind energy to curry favor with the Nazis.

After they seized power in 1930s the Nazi’s began a systematic program for assuring self-sufficiency in time of war. The development of wind turbines became a part, though never a big part, of this program.

In a chapter provocatively titled “Inventor or Charlatan: The Era of Big Wind Power Plants,” Heymann reveals his discovery of a damning telegram from Hermann Honnef to propaganda minister Goebbels pleading for a favorable word from Adolph Hitler on Honnef’s proposal to build towering multi-turbine monstrosities. Playing upon Nazi ideological desire for technological superiority, Honnef implored, “Help open the way for German ability! I am waiting for the Führer’s call! Heil Hitler! Faithfully yours: Hermann Honnef.”

In a subsequent chapter Heymann describes the Ventimotor company, its test center near Weimar, and its key personnel. The company was formed in late 1940 by Walther Schieber and Fritz Sauckel to develop wind turbines that could be used in the war effort.

According to Heymann, Schieber’s star rose rapidly under the Third Reich. In 1942 Speer called Schieber to the Reich’s armaments ministry but by the war’s end his work fell out of favor. Like the notorious Robert Ley, Schieber was a graduate chemist who had worked at IG Farben before the war. Schieber’s Reich credentials included a successful stint in the SS. Heymann does not elaborate further on his activities.

Sauckel was a Nazi area commander (Gauleiter) and the Reichsstatthalter in the province of Thuringen. Both were important posts, the latter position being equivalent to a state president in the modern federal republic. Sauckel was known by the Allies as the Nazi “slave-labor czar.” He was hanged on October 16, 1946 at Nuremburg for “crimes against humanity.” Sauckel was in the first group of ten Nazis to be hanged. The group included the top surviving leaders of Nazi Germany and would have included Göring had Göring not committed suicide the night before. Thus, Sauckel was considered by the Allies as one of the more senior leaders in the Third Reich.

Into this group stepped Ulrich Hütter, then a 30-year-old aeronautical engineer. While there is no evidence that Hütter was a Nazi, Ventimotor’s origins are closely linked to Nazi party leaders, and the controlling figures in the company, Sauckel and Schieber, were leading Nazis. Heymann does not explore further the connection between Ventimotor and the Reich.

Note: It has since been confirmed that Hütter was an early member of the Nazi Party. See Buchenwald’s Liberation and What It Says about the Development of Wind Energy.

Postwar Germany has had to confront its past by asking painful questions about how ordinary Germans could ignore or participate in the crimes of the Third Reich. Future historians may ask such questions of the highly educated engineers who worked for Ventimotor. What did they know? When did they know it? And, what did they do about it? The questions are relevant because one of Nazi Germany’s more notorious concentration camps, Buchenwald, was near Weimar.

The camp was located about five miles northwest of the city in a woodland that is still extant. According to an April 27, 1945 report by Georges Vanier, the Canadian Ambassador to France, Buchenwald was built near Weimar’s former zoological garden. Vanier described an idyllic road from Weimar to Buchenwald flanked on either side by beautiful trees of pine and chestnut.

Though disparaged by Nazi propagandists, Weimar was and is culturally important to Germans. It was a University town and it was the home to two of Germany’s most famous writers: Goethe and Schiller.

Buchenwald was built in 1937 by political prisoners. At the time of its liberation on April 11, 1945 Buchenwald held nearly 60,000 captives. According to Vanier, the number killed at Buchenwald will never be known: “well over 50,000, it may be over 100,000”. Today the population of Weimar is 100,000.

Hütter lived in Weimar from 1939 to 1943. Again, there is no evidence that he knew of Buchenwald. But it does beg the question, how could he have not known? And, if he did know, what did he do with this knowledge?

In 1943 Ventimotor’s activities were sharply curtailed. Hütter served briefly in the military, then went to work for Graf Zeppelin near Stuttgart. Hütter would eventually become one of wind energy’s most noted figures.

Hütter, says Heymann, was not just an engineer, he was also an artist and aesthete. Hütter’s intuitive style of design would determine the engineering world’s view of wind turbines for the next forty years. Unlike many of the engineers who followed in his footsteps, Hütter emphasized the importance that the aesthetic design of wind turbines would have on subsequent decades. In his thesis, Heymann notes, Hütter wrote that “These (wind turbines) must for that reason in a deeper sense be of a timeless beauty, so that they do not in three or four decades hence burden a later generation with the heavy task of removing angular skeletons, by our indifference to the imponderable value of our environment.”

In another observation from Hütter’s doctoral dissertation, Heymann says Hütter argued that a greater number of medium-sized turbines is superior to a small number of large turbines, a lesson that was lost on later German engineers who designed the ill-fated Growian. Hütter’s dissertation also concluded that for tip speed ratios between 4 and 7 three blades were the optimum number of blades in a rotor. He later devoted most of his research to two-bladed turbines because he believed he could wring further economies from lightweight, two-bladed turbines operating at tip speeds above 7. Hütter went on to conclude that the optimum wind turbine for producing the lowest cost electricity is one with a rotor 35 meters in diameter atop a 40 meter tower.

By the end of the war there were six turbines at Ventimotor’s test field, including a 50 kW Aeromotor from the Danish firm F.L. Smidth. It is interesting to speculate how the 18-meter turbine could have influenced Hütter’s later work and led German wind turbine designers down a path far different than that taken by Hütter in later years. The F.L. Smidth turbines of the war years were direct antecedents of Johannes Juul’s Gedser mill during the post-war period. How would the international wind turbine market look today if Hütter had pursued a Gedser-like design instead of the University of Stuttgart’s two-blade, downwind W34 that he made famous?

In the contemporary period Heymann explores another ticklish question: how tiny Denmark, with its emphasis on craft tradition succeeded where the R&D powerhouses failed despite the superiority of technical and scientific knowledge in Germany and the United States during the 1970s. Heymann, by citing the success of Danish development relative to the technical failures of the German and U.S. programs, argues that it was the style of technological development that in part determined the outcome.

Heymann recounts the appalling story of Growian, German wind engineering’s most spectacular failure. He also describes MBB’s Monopteros program, a project exhibiting Honnef-like megalomania. Germany invested DM 87 million ($55 million) in Growian, the largest wind turbine ever built. From 1983 to 1987 Growian operated a mere 420 hours. Growian, patterned after Hütter’s work, holds the dubious distinction of performing even more poorly than the turbines in the U.S. DOE’s Mod-2 program.

MBB’s DM 50 million ($30 million) one-bladed Monopteros program fared somewhat better. Three 600 kW prototypes are still in service near Wilhelmshaven. But MBB, the corporate descendent of war-time aircraft manufacturer Messerschmitt, discovered an unexpected scale-effect that may be of interest today to manufacturers reaching for multimegawatt designs. MBB’s Monopteros program featured a line of wind turbines from 15 to 56 meters in diameter. In contrast to the expected economies of scale, the bigger turbines cost more per unit of generation than the smaller turbines. That is, the specific cost in DM/m2 of rotor swept area increased with size!

Those with a penchant for tracing the development of wind energy as far back as possible will find early chapters in the book of interest. For example, many mistakenly believe that the Netherlands operated more windmills than any other country in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries. Not so, says Heymann. As late as 1907 there were nearly twice the number of windmills operating in Germany than there had been in the Netherlands during wind’s heyday. Most were in Prussia and other northern states.

In researching this topic, Heymann settled an arcane dispute among historians over the number plants on record using windmills in Germany during the late 19th century. He found that there were some 18,901 windmills mentioned in an 1882 census, not the 19,900 mentioned in one of the standard texts on the development of wind energy in Europe. In 1895 windmills provided 1.8% of the power in Germany (equivalent to 87 MW), steam provided 78%.

Heymann’s thesis, from which Die Geschichte der Windenergienutzung was derived, won the Kellermann prize for history of technology in 1992.

Die Geschichte der Windenergienutzung 1890-1990 by Matthias Heymann, 1995, ISBN 3 539 35278 8, 518 pages, 6″ x 8″ paperback, name index, bibliography, can be ordered for DM 88, Swiss Francs 82, or Austrian Schillings 651 from Campus Verlag, Heerstrasse 149, D-60488 Frankfurt; Germany, phone: +49 69 976 516 10, fax: +49 69 976 516 78.

Table of Contents

Note: In German usage windmotors or westernmills refers to the multiblade windpump known in North America as the  farm windmill or American water-pumping windmill. The rotor on the American farm windmill is called a windwheel in American usage.


Part 1: Windmills and Windmotors–The End of Wind Energy, 1890-1930

1. The Decline of Windmills
1.1 The Age of Windmills
1.2 The Displacement of Windmills
1.2.1 The Declining Numbers of Windmills
1.2.2 The Transformation of Milling
1.2.3 The Death of Windmills in the 20th Century
1.3 On the Pathology of the Death of Windmills
1.3.1 Discussion on Windmill Technology
1.3.2 The Inexorable Death of Windmills
2. The Rise of Windmotors
2.1 Windmotors in the USA
2.1.1 Development of Windwheels in the USA
2.1.2 Technology Transfer To Germany
2.2 Invention and Innovation
2.2.1 Windmotors as Electricity Generators
2.2.2 Wind Generators of Poul la Cour
2.2.3 Advancement of Wind Generators
2.2.4 The Aerodynamics of Windmotors
2.2.5 Perry’s Experiments in the USA
2.2.6 La Cour’s Work in Aerodynamics
2.2.7 The Ideal Windmill
2.3 The Boom in Windmotors
2.3.1 Perfecting Windmotors
2.3.2 The Versatility of Windmotors
2.3.3 The Ability of Windmotors to Compete
3. The Interim End of Wind Energy Utilization
3.1 The Coal Crisis and Large Electricity Suppliers
3.1.1 The Coal Crisis
3.1.2 The Expansion of Electricity Supplies
3.2 Wind Turbine Research and State Involvement
3.2.1 Wind Turbine Research in Germany
3.2.2 The Impulse of Aerodynamics
3.2.3 State Interest in Wind Turbine Use
3.3 New Ways to Use Wind Energy
3.3.1 The Consequence of Alternating Current
3.3.2 New Techniques for Greater Performance
3.4 On the Decline of Wind Energy Utilization

Part 2: Wind Power Plants and Wind Turbines–Experiments, Project Plans, Utopias

4. Large Wind Power Plants for Self Sufficiency
4.1 Changing Framework in the 1930s
4.1.1 World Economic Crisis and the Politics of Self Sufficiency
4.1.2 Discussion on the Structure of Energy Supply
4.2 Inventor or Charlatan? The Era of Giant Wind Power Plants
4.2.1 The Plans of Hermann Honnef
4.2.2 Discussion with Ministries of the Third Reich
4.2.3 Teubert’s Desperate Endeavor
4.2.4 Honnef’s “Reich’s Power tower”
5. Research Offensives in the Second World War
5.1 Wind Energy Use in Denmark and the Soviet Union
5.1.1 Electricity Planning in the Soviet Union
5.1.2 Wind Energy as a Means to Conserve Fuel in Denmark
5.2 Private Initiatives in Nazi Germany
5.2.1 The Reich’s “Working Group Wind Power”
5.2.2 Teubert and the Gutehoffnungshuette
5.2.3 The Wind Turbine Work of MAN
5.2.4 Efforts for Small Wind Power Turbines
5.3 State Support of Wind Turbine Research by the Fascist Labor Front
5.3.1 Honnef’s Test Field in Bötzow-Velten
5.3.2 The Work of Ventimotor GmbH
6. Development Work after the Second World War
6.1 The Supply Crisis after the Second World War
6.2 The End of the Honnef Era
6.2.1 Honnef’s Project Hamburg
6.2.2 Honnef’s Last Effort
6.3 International Endeavors after the Second World War
6.3.1 Large Wind Turbines in the USA
6.3.2 Wind Turbine Research in Great Britain and in France
6.3.3 Juul’s Work in Denmark
6.4 University Wind Turbines
6.4. The Work on University Wind Turbines
6.4.2 Hütters 100 kW Wind Turbine, the W34
6.5 The Temporary End of Wind Energy Research

Part 3: Large Wind Turbines and Wind Farms–The Rediscovery of Wind Energy, 1970-1990

7. State Supported Wind Energy Research Programs
7.1 The Energy Crisis and Environmental Concerns
7.2 Wind Energy Research in Denmark and in the USA
7.2.1 The Promotion of Research in the USA
7.2.2 Denmark’s Wind Poewr Research Program
7.3 The Politics of German Research to 1985
7.3.1 Discussion on the Use of Wind Energy
7.3.2 Research Efforts in the 1970s
7.3.3 The Growian Project
7.3.4 The Foundering of Research Politics to 1985
8. The 1980s Boom in Wind Energy
8.1 The Use of Wind Energy in California and Denmark
8.1.1 The California Wind Rush
8.1.2 The Use of Wind Energy in Denmark
8.2 The Change in Germany’s Research Politics
8.2.1 The Problems with Using Wind Energy
8.2.2 Turbine Development and Creation of a Market


9. Obstacles to the Use of Wind Energy in the 20th Century
9.1 The Cost of Wind Energy
9.1.1 Cost Assessment in the 20th Century
9.1.2 The Worth of Cost Assessments
9.2 Structural Incompatibilities
9.2.1 Displacement of Windmills and Windmotors
9.2.2 Attempts to Adapt Wind Technology
9.2.3 Renaissance of Wind Energy
9.3 Failures in Practice and Scientific Confidence
9.3.1 Technical Problems of Using Wind Energy
9.3.2 From the Craft Tradition to Engineering Science
9.3.3 Technological Hubris in the 20th Century
9.4 What a View over the Border Teaches .
9.4.1 Technical Concepts and Construction Philosophies
9.4.2 Conceptual Gap and Conceptual Consensus
9.4.3 The Roots of Technical Tradition
9.4.5 Political Structures and Conditions
9.5 Overview: The Future of Wind Energy Utilization

Abbreviations Used



Tables Name Index

Archive Sources