History is made up of great people who have advanced the field of technology and energy production. One such pursuit that engineers continue to pursue to this day is the dream of making wind-powered turbines a sustainable reality. Here’s everything you need to know about inventor James Blyth and his contributions to wind energy.
An electrical engineer from Scotland, James Blyth created the first wind-powered turbine, which he used to power his Marykirk home.
Blyth is a remarkable pioneer in the field of sustainable energy, and even after his momentous achievement, he continued to make advancements and improvements to his project. The rest of this article will go over the life and achievements of James Blyth.
An Engineer at Heart
From an early age, Blyth showed a profound interest in engineering. Born April 4th, 1839 to parents John and Catherine Blyth, he attended Montrose Academy in Kincardineshire before earning a scholarship for the General Assembly Normal School.
Graduating with his bachelors Edinburgh University 5 years later, Blyth went on to teach mathematics in Crieff at Morrison’s Academy, even going so far as to develop several curricula for George Watson’s College, a new startup in Edinburgh.
Pursuing his education, Blyth attained his masters in 1871, marrying Jesse Taylor the same year.
Blyth’s Career and Achievements
Blyth began teaching in 1880 as a natural philosophy professor. He was well liked by students and peers, both of whom appreciated his relaxed attitude and hard-working attitude.
During his teaching career, Blyth began to take an interest in how energy was generated and stored via wind power.
His interests would eventually result in the configuration of a turbine with cloth sailed, called a windmill, placed in the garden of his Marykirk home, and using the produced electricty to power the home.
As such, Blyth’s holiday home is the first ever to use wind energy as a power source. A year later, Blyth would file a paper to the Philosophical Society of Glasgow detailing his invention.
He described the design as like a tripod, featuring thirteen foot tall wind shaft and 4 13-foot canvas sails. A Burgin dynamo was driven from the flywheel with the use of a rope.
Reportedly, the turbine was powerful enough to light 10 bulbs with 25 volts under moderate breeze conditions. The original generator is the first known structure to use wind power for the generation of electricity, but it was far from perfect.
What Blyth’s original design failed to consider was the onset of too much wind—without a braking system, the wind generator could be damaged by the very thing it tried to harness.
Charles F. Brush, American inventor, would solve this issue a couple months after Blyth’s first wind turbine was invented, creating the first automatic wind turbine, the design of which would shut down when exposed to high wind force.
A tinkerer at heart, Blyth continued to experiment with his design, with his final one serving his home for a quarter of a century, generating more electricity than he needed. Blyth politely offered the surplus to the town of Marykirk for lighting the streets but they declined, as they thought his wind-powered turbine was the Devil’s work.
In 1891, James was given a patent by the UK government for his so-called “wind engine.” A couple years later, 1895 would see him would license a Glasgow engineering company, to make another turbine for the purpose of supplying emergency power for the Montrose Lunatic Asylum.
The turbine ran for three decades. In addition, Blyth’s updated design built on the work of Thomas Robinson’s anemometer design was less susceptible to wind damage, although long, sustained winds still posed a problem.
An Inventor and an Advocate
Shortly after the invention of the first wind turbine, Blyth submitted his paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh supporting his opinion that sources of renewable energy were both attainable and viable, particularly wind energy.
Later, in 1891, he was given a Brisbane Gold Medal, thanks to his contributions in wind energy technology, although the Royal Scottish Society of Arts eventually determined that his invention wasn’t economically sustainable.
Blyth’s passion for technology spanned numerous fields, including lighting, telephones, microphones, and, of course, sustainable energy. Clearly, his vigor for the natural sciences rubbed off on his children, since Vincent and George, son and son in law, respectively, were both active in teaching roles in the Department of Natural Philosophy.
Blyth passed away in 1906, and a plaque was constructed in his honor at the University of Glasgow. His Montrose Asylum turbine was dismantled in 1914, over 30 years after it had been installed.
While Blyth may not have seen his vision of a sustainably powered UK in his lifetime, the concept of wind energy would continue to ruminate among inventors until eventually, in 1951, a turbine would be built in Orkney, the first of its kind to be connected to the utility grid.
In the ‘70s, industrial scale wind generation was proposed as a source of electricity for the UK, but it was not until the 2000s that the idea would come to fruition.
In 2007, the UK Government agreed with a European Union goal of generating 20% electricity through renewable sources by 2020. From 2008, the percentage of electricity use powered by renewable sources was 1.50%. Today, it’s more than a quarter of all energy produced in the UK.
James Blyth was a man who knew what he was capable of and set out to do it. Not only did Blyth love tinkering for himself, he also loved sharing his discoveries with his students and peers.
His character speaks for itself, and the reverberations of his accomplishment continue to be felt through the advocacy of renewable energy sources, particularly wind turbines, around the world.
Although it may have taken over a century for Blyth's wind turbine technology to be commerically viable, truly, James Blyth was on of the first pioneers of renewable energy, and his engineering prowess should inspire us all to new heights.