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The early history of wind power

Wind power may be on the rise, but it’s not something new. People have been harnessing the power of the wind in one form or another for thousands of years.

Since ancient times, the wind has been used to propel sailing boats. Ancient architects also took advantage of it in wind-driven ventilation systems for their buildings. The first known mechanical use, however, was a wind-powered organ developed by Heron of Alexandria, a Greek engineer, in the first century AD.

The early Middle Ages saw the widespread use of horizontal windmills in the Middle East and Central Asia. These devices comprised a long vertical driveshaft with a number of rectangular sails. By the 12th Century, they had spread to Northwestern Europe, where they were used to mill flour.

The 12th Century also saw the introduction of the vertical post mills that most people are familiar with. Waterpower was generally restricted to the clergy and nobility in medieval England, so wind power presented a valuable resource to an emerging middle class. Unlike watermills, windmills could also still operate when the water froze.

In addition to milling grain, wind power was adapted to pump water, most notably by the Dutch to reclaim land from the sea.

Scottish professor James Blyth built the first wind turbine capable of generating electricity in the garden of his holiday cottage in 1887. It stood 10 metres high with cloth sails, with the energy being directed to an accumulator and used to power the cottage’s lighting. When Blyth offered his surplus electricity to power the lighting on the village’s main street, the residents refused, believing electricity to be “the work of the devil”.

For much of the 20th Century, wind power was mostly restricted to applications where the abundantly available fossil fuels could not compete. For example, many farms in the United States installed wind turbines to power lighting or recharge batteries for machinery, but this dropped off as electricity grids expanded into rural areas.

The modern age of wind power began when the 1973 oil crisis sparked a renewed interest in alternative energy sources, but advances in wind power have not come without challenges. For example, in the mid-1990s, traditional oils were found to be causing pits and shortening the life of gear components. This led to ExxonMobil, which also makes the Mobil ATF LT 71141 automatic transmission fluid, introducing its first synthetic oil for wind turbines in 1998.

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