108. First Wind

08 May

The Turbine looms in the Asylum's grounds.

This is big. Those scoops alone are four metres tall. This obscure construction was groundbreaking, it also was alien. Fitting, considering it was constructed outside of an Insane Asylum.This was the first commercial wind turbine in existence. You may think those sweeping plastic skeletal blades are 21st Century, filled with gizmo’s, gadgets, guzmo’s, gazmo’s and many other things beginning with ‘g’ however they are much older than that.

The above contraption; was built in 1895, over 115 years ago. Their conception and invention, was over 120 years ago, in 1887: the same year that saw the patenting of both the earmuff and the Gramophone. By comparison a wind turbine was awe-inspiring.

Let us start with a name, James Blyth. He was the Scottish engineer responsible for constructing the prototypes and patenting the design for his “wind engine”. The first prototype in 1887 was a shambling contraption with cloth sails which stood outside of his personal residence in Marykirk, Scotland. It spun around in anything above a light breeze, and to it he attached a ring of magnets to the spinning shaft and then a copper coil beneath it. In the wind those magnets would spin past the copper wire and ZAP! he had electricity. Not enough to reanimate the dead, but it was a start.

Prototype 'windmill' at his Marykirk residence

The next year, 1888 he sent off a description of his “wind engine” to the Philosophical Society of all places. Describing his prized creation as,

“of a tripod design, with a 33 foot windshaft, four arms of 13 feet with canvas sails, and a Burgin dynamo driven from the flywheel using a rope.”

As mentioned he went through many a prototype, increasing efficiency and power output at every stage. His initial prototype in a “moderate breeze” could power 10, 25-volt bulbs, or even a small lathe. His final design in 1891 produced enough power for his whole house, with a surplus of energy. Not to say there were not flaws. Specifically a lack of braking mechanisms caused a great problem. Simply put the wind turbine couldn’t handle excessive wind. One sympathises.

Moving onwards, the kind Mr Blyth offered up his final design to the local insane asylum, as one does. They then refused, claiming that electricity was “the work of The Devil“. Being persistent as he was, Mr Blyth waited it out and eventually was commissioned by the Insane Asylum to produce one as a source of backup power.

The result was the hulking structure seen at the top of this article, it stood for 27 years and provided more than enough power to satisfy the Asylum’s (insane) energy demands. Then a wind dark age. The construction of the structure in 1895 was to be the last for another 56 years within Britain. A full 45 years after the great man’s death.

The turbines died out because they were just not economical. They broke, were ugly and only achieved a woeful 2% efficiency, modern wind turbines are reaching around 20 times that efficiency. However they did require his considerable insights. The next time you see those skeletal plastic windmills dotting the landscape, please remember, they are older than they seem. As old as gramophones and earmuffs.

The present and future must always come from the past, it is wise to keep that in mind. The future may have already been invented. You just need to find it.


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