Who Invented Wind Turbines?

The other day, I was reading in a local magazine published by my city an article about the Bollée family. They are pretty famous around here (here is Le Mans, remember, I’m French) because of their involvement in the automobile industry. I didn’t know a lot about Ernest Sylvain Bollée or his sons beyond that (except the fact that there was a football stadium with their name on it and a street too). I was a little surprised to learn that Ernest created the wind turbines. Turns out, he didn’t really create it. It’s a bit more complicated than that. So…

Who Created Wind Turbines?

First, you know the drill, it’s time for a definition. In the case of the “wind turbine,” it’s pretty easy: a wind-driven turbine for generating electricity. The wind blows, the turbine produces electricity. Pretty simple. Well, the idea is simple, I would not pretend to know how to build one.

The original idea behind this wind contraption was not to produce electricity. Using wind power for mechanical purposes apparently came from Heron of Alexandria, a Greek engineer who created a wind wheel during the first century (A.D.). Archeologists found that, long before him, there already were windmills, but Heron—for all we know—was the first to draw the plans to build a machine powered by wind power. As is often the case, for old inventions, we are just doing with what has been found. History may be rewritten.

As the story continues, seven centuries later, it has been found that the first practical windmills were used—“The Persian windmill.” In Europe, the first references to a similar windmill were dated from the 12th century.

But what about the kind of wind turbines we are here to discuss, the ones that produce electricity?

Charles F. Brush’s 56-foot, 80,000-pound turbine supplied 12kW of power to 350 incandescent lights, 2 arc lights, and a number of motors at his home for 20 years.

Who Invented the Wind Turbine to Generate Electricity?

The answer is Professor James Blyth who was a Scottish engineer from Glasgow. In 1887, he used accumulators developed by French chemical engineer Camille Faure (developed from the lead-acid battery invented by Gaston Planté in 1859) to set up wind sales in order to power the lights in his cottage. A successful attempt that led his neighbors to think it was the work of the Devil. Even if he found more open-minded people ready to use his invention, his wind turbine didn’t become widely used.

The American scientist named Charles F. Brush had more luck. He was the 19th-century equivalent of an electrical engineer who started at a young age to experiment with electricity. Early in his professional career, he designed a dynamo for powering arc lights that helped the production of public light in a big way in his time, from New York to San Francisco. But that was during the 1870s. Naturally, his experimentations didn’t stop there. With his successes came competition, but that didn’t stop Brush who built one of the first power plants to generate electricity from water power in the United States. After that, in 1888, he built what he described as the first automatic wind turbine—a vertical-axis wind turbine—to generate electricity. He also used it at first to provide electricity for his house. A year later, Charles F. Brush extended his wind operation.

In 1891, a Danish scientist named Poul la Cour introduced real improvements to the wind turbine. He had found out that using a small number of rotor blades instead of the 56-foot-rotor Brush used. But what really changed the game was its Kratostate, a differential regulator used to make the mill produce constant power in order to drive a generator. Denmark quickly adopted his technology, even if the first turbine producing more than 1 MW of power was not installed before 1941. Today, one turbine can produce 10 MW and supply electricity to about 10,000 European homes.

Bollée wind turbine of Saint-Jean-de-Braye (Loiret, France), seen from Clos du Mont

What About the Éolienne Bollée?

This article started with Bollée and his “éolienne” (wind turbine in French, as you may have guessed). First patented in 1868 by Ernest Sylvain Bollée, this wind turbine was not your usual one. It used a stator and a rotor like a water turbine—it was a wind pump. He later improved the design (in 1885) to increase the flow of wind through the turbine. The “Éolienne Bollée” is the only wind-powered turbine where the wind passes through a set of fixed blades before driving the windmill itself. Its main function was not to produce electricity but to pump water. It was a commercial success.

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