While strolling through the Bakersfield Museum of Art this summer—yes, don’t laugh, we have an art museum here—I came across a caption that stopped me cold. This was part of a retrospective on the life and work of Sam Francis, a prolific artist who had a studio in Santa Monica, California.
Nancy Mazur wrote in a caption for an artwork by Michael Murray (1943-2010) that Murray built the first prototype wind turbine for Robert Thomas’ Wind Harvest Company in 1976. Mazur and Murray were art students being mentored by Sam Francis at the time.
That little note shed a lot of light on the early days of wind in California and how little threads of creativity from all corners were eventually woven into the industry we have today.
For a fascinating account of the period, and the role that the art world, Jungian followers, and dreams played in “innovation” see Peter Asmus Reaping the Wind. Asmus’ reporting on this period is the most revealing I’ve seen. My copy of his book has critical notes scribbled all over the margins from a quarter century ago, especially on the pages devoted to Thomas and his “vision.”
Thomas, Francis, and the others were all connected by Jungian dream interpretation. This was a key element in Francis’ art. And, apparently, it played an important part in Thomas’ dream of a Windstar, as Kevin Wolf explains in his brief obituary of Thomas, who died in 2019.
Murray built a model by hand of a wind turbine that Thomas had interpreted from Thomas’ dreams. Francis, the famous artist, came by, saw the model in Thomas’ garage, and “wrote a check for $1.3 million,” and Wind Harvest was born writes Asmus. The model, or a version of it, was then installed near Gorman in the windy Tejon Pass, according to Asmus.
In Kevin Wolf’s history of the Windstar design, Wind Harvest installed the first prototype of Thomas’ Windstar Vertical-Axis Wind Turbine (VAWT) in the San Gorgonio Pass. Thomas then went to work for the newly created California Energy Commission (CEC) in Jerry Brown’s first administration.
I came later to California, 1984, but Bob Thomas was still stomping around promoting his vision then. I may have even have met him or at least seen him at a conference. Both Asmus and Wolf credit Thomas with some of the pivotal moves that made the California Wind Rush happen. Notably, Thomas was instrumental in the CEC’s wind resource assessments that identified the three windy passes we know today: Altamont, Tehachapi, and San Gorgonio. Without that work there would have been no wind rush.
After the Reagan revolution swept the country, Thomas left the CEC and returned to Wind Harvest. There he continued to promote his vision of the Windstar, a wind turbine that spun about a vertical axis by using straight vertical blades, what we call an H-rotor.
Various versions of the Wind Harvest turbine have been installed near Palm Springs over the decades and they even attempted to install some on crown land in Wales. I remember thinking at the time, “Oh my, how could the Brits be taken in by this?” Then I remembered that Prince Charles hated modern windmills—the kind that work. As is often the case, the novelty of VAWTs seem like a substitute for the conventional, three-blade upwind turbines that have become dominant.
 Peter Asmus, Reaping the Wind: How Mechanical Wizards, Visionaries, and Profiteers Helped Shape Our Energy Future (Island Press, 2001). Pages 76-80, 84, 127-128, 152-153.