In 1897, James Blyth (1839-1906), an engineer from Anderson’s College, built a windmill in rural Scotland to provide electric power to an emergency generator at the Montrose Lunatic Asylum. The turbine remained in service well into the 1920s. During the 1880s, Blyth was not alone in utilizing wind to generate electric power. Charles Brush in the United States and Poul la Cour of Denmark developed their own turbines. Historians of wind energy generally categorize these projects as outliers or failures because they did not result in widely adopted systems at the turn of the 20th century, because fossil fuels and hydropower appeared to be the dominant option. In limiting our interpretation, we miss an opportunity to learn from the experience of past efforts to alter existing energy infrastructures, especially the cultural forces that favored fossil fuels over “the natural forces.” A closer analysis of Blyth’s motivations and project reveals that in this case “failure” is a poor historical category. It prevents us from understanding the technical and cultural reasons an electrical engineer, like Blyth, would have developed such a turbine, as well as the reasoning that favored other systems. By altering how we portray earlier attempts to introduce alternative energy systems, we will be in a better position to adapt current efforts to change how electric power is generated.
Nathan Kapoor is a PhD candidate at the University of Oklahoma specializing in the history of energy and electrification. His dissertation analyzes the connection between electrification and imperial power in New Zealand. He holds a BS in History from Tennessee Technological University and an MA from the University of Oklahoma in the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine.