History of Conventional Wind Turbines Published—Finally

By Paul Gipe

The first installment of an overview of the history of conventional wind turbines was published by Swedish academic Erik Möllerström and myself 15 August. Part 1 appears in Wind Engineering, an imprint of Sage Journals. The second part will appear later this year.

Titled An overview of the history of wind turbine development: Part I—The early wind turbines until the 1960s, the journal article traces the development of modern wind turbines from the late 19th century through the post war years.

The long saga began innocently enough when Möllerström approached me with the idea of a companion piece to a journal article we’d written previously. Möllerström, a senior lecturer of Energy Engineering at Halmstad University, and I published “A historical review of vertical axis wind turbines rated 100 kW and above” in 2019.

Seemed like a good idea at the time. I’d completed a lot of historical research for my last book, Wind Energy for the Rest of Us (2016) and we could parlay that into an academic article. The latter is more permanent than a printed book and could reach a broader audience.

Smith-Putnam 1,000 kW wind turbine atop Granpa’s Knob, Vermont on 30 August 1941. Archives of Carl Wilcox. Note that the blades on the downnwind, flapping rotor are feathered.

Alas, I hadn’t footnoted my earlier work and neither of us was fully aware of all the pitfalls we were to encounter and the very deep rabbit holes we were to fall down before publication.

I now know more about digital citation systems than I ever wanted to know. (I use Zotero, an open-source bibliographic tool.) And that was just the beginning.

For my part, I embarrassingly discovered little-known inventors and their wind turbines that I had never heard of—and I’ve been writing about wind energy for just a few decades now. Take Dimitri Stein and his Nordwind turbine, for example. How could I have missed him?

Then there was another long-forgotten British wind turbine on the Isle of Man that was probably the most successful of the British post-war wind turbines. Again, I’d never heard of it. Few had, it turns out. The effort had disappeared into obscurity.

Both designs may have had more influence on subsequent wind turbines than is widely known.

Fortunately, we were able to set the historical record straight in places. The giant French BEST-Romani experimental wind turbine of the 1960s was not rated at 800 kW as widely reported, but only 640 kW.

Most significantly, I was called up short by French colleague Philippe Bruyerre who pointed out that the Smith-Putnam wind turbine was not rated at 1,250 kW but only 1,000 kW for the same reason the BEST-Romani wind turbine wasn’t really 800 kW either. Even Palmer Putnam himself got it wrong in his book Power from the Wind. Nevertheless, I and many others have been reporting the capacity of the wind turbine in error for years.

What seemed like a simple idea at first—an article on horizontal-axis wind turbines–took us more than a year to bring to fruition. We couldn’t have completed such a lengthy project without the help of John Twidell, Etienne Rogier, Matthias Heymann, Mark Haller, and James Manwell.

Unlike many academic articles that can only be read behind a pay wall, our historical review is openly accessible and available for download. 

I’ve written elsewhere that much of what we know about wind energy was known in 1957. Then I moved that date back to 1927 as I learned more about German physicist Albert Betz. Most surprising to me was discovering that the essence of what makes a wind turbine a success was written by Scottish academic James Blyth in 1892.

Blyth laid down three rules for harnessing the wind successfully, and they remain true to this day.

    It must be always be ready to go.

    It must go without attendance for lengthened periods.

    It must go through the wildest gale and be able to take full advantage of it.

An overview of the history of wind turbine development: Part I—The early wind turbines until the 1960s