The History of Wind Power

Before diving into the history of wind power it is important to understand the difference between a windmill and a wind turbine.

A windmill is a device that uses the kinetic energy of the wind for mechanical work like grinding grains or pumping water, whereas a wind turbine uses the kinetic energy from the wind to produce electricity from a generator.

Ancient History of Wind Power

The earliest known use of the windmill was in the 1st century AD by Heron of Alexandria.  It was used to power his organ, and was the first known windmill used to power a machine.  

Around the 9th century AD in Persia many vertical axis windmills were used to grind grains and pump water from the ground.  There were also many windmills used to grind and pump water in China around the 13th century AD and is often argued that the Chinese had invented the windmill much earlier than a timeline of wind power history suggests, but the evidence is obscure.

It was not until Europe in the 13th century that we started to see horizontal axis windmills used.  Although differently designed for capturing the wind, they were still mostly used for grinding grains.

The first windmill ever used to generate electricity (wind turbine) was in 1887 in Cleveland, Ohio, designed by inventor and electrician Charles F. Brush.

Today, most wind devices that we see are wind turbines, which generate electricity, but in some areas windmills are still used for grinding or pumping water.

Modern History of Wind Power

Again, the first use of the wind being converted into electrical energy was by Charles F. Brush in Cleveland, Ohio.  The blades of his design were 17 meters in diameter and produced about 12 kilowatts of electricity.

In the 1920’s wind turbines were made with blades similar to that of airplane propellers and were easier to construct because of their much smaller size and were able to produce around 3 kilowatts of electricity.

These turbines also had the advantage of being easily installed closely together with other turbines to collectively generate substantially more power.  Many of these systems were constructed in the farmlands of the Midwest United States and the Great Plains, and became the origin of what we now call a wind farm.

In 1941 in Vermont, the most powerful wind turbine to date was built.  It was constructed mostly out of steel with a 175 foot diameter rotor blade, and produced 1.25 megawatts of electricity.  This special turbine, knows as the Smith-Putnam turbine, did not have a very long lifespan due to its grand size and weight.

Wind power history shortly after World War II saw critical advancements, mostly in Germany and Denmark, by inventing more technologically advanced machines due to the rising cost of fossil fuels in Europe.

In the 1970s and 1980s it was common to see wind turbines with power capabilities of 1-50 kilowatts that were easily constructed, more affordable, and easier to maintain.  These efficient horizontal axis wind turbines are the kind of turbines we now see on wind farms or perhaps domestically, for a single home. Today many countries have areas with legitimate electrical support from wind energy such as The United States, Germany, China, Spain, India, and Denmark.

The history of wind power showed the world many technological improvements and innovations that have given us more efficient and less expensive wind turbines today.  Hopefully, more of these improvements and innovations are still on the horizon, creating new chapters for the history of wind power.