A Free-Market Energy Blog

U.S. Grid Wind Power: Free Market Failure (1940-45)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- September 6, 2023

“An ‘infant industry’ wind power is not.” (Bradley, below)

“At congressional hearings in 1951 to provide increased wind-power funding … Putnam’s blade failure … played right into the hands of those committed to other forms of electrical production: fossil, atomic or solar.” (Wired, below)

The quest to make electricity from wind attracted entrepreneurs well before government mandates and subsidies got involved in the 1970s. As grid power, wind turbines were concept-proven in the 1880s (as were solar panels).

The article below in Wired (October 19, 2009), “Oct. 19, 1941: Electric Turbines Get First Wind was published with the subtitle: “The giant turbine in Vermont was the first wind machine to feed the electrical grid. And then, disaster struck.”

The description below pertains to the 1.25 MW Grandpa’s Knob wind turbine, which during World War II distributed electricity to Central Vermont Public Service Corporation. “In the course of five years of experiments, the engineers in charge concluded that the major mechanical problems had been solved and that a unit could be designed to remain safely on line in any wind,” according to the project’s architect Palmer Putnam. This led the Federal Power Commission (now FERC) to estimate the potential of domestic wind power in 1945.

Read and learn: an “infant industry” wind power is not.

The Wired account follows:

The giant turbine in Vermont was the first wind machine to feed the electrical grid. And then, disaster struck. The unprecedented project was built up from nothing, practically conjured, by Palmer Putnam, an MIT-trained geologist with no formal education or experience in wind power….

Before this project, windmills had just pumped water for farmers in the boonies, or charged the batteries of rural radios so they could pick up the AM stations that brought news across the lonely, whistling prairies. The people who sold windmills marketed them to ranchers and farmers; their advertisements appeared in magazines like American Thresherman, Farm Power, Agricultural Technology and Successful Farming.

The American windmill, as it was called, was simple and Western and rugged. Its shape hardly changed after key 1880s experiments by Thomas Perry resulted in the founding of the Aermotor company, which dominated the industry thereafter. But that’s not the kind of turbine that Putnam had in mind. After looking into the designs of the past, he immediately decided that the economics of scale dictated that he build a wind turbine with 75-foot blades, the largest in the world. It would generate more than a megawatt of power and feed it on to the grid, working in tandem with a hydroelectric plant to even out the intermittency of the wind and the seasonality of water generation.

No one had ever pulled off that balancing act before, and most people working in the wind industry were probably too sane to try…. The strange thing is: Putnam succeeded. “Vermont’s mountain winds were harnessed last week to generate electricity for its homes and factories,” read the Sept. 8, 1941, issue of Time, jumping the gun a bit. “Slowly, like the movements of an awakening giant, two stainless-steel vanes — the size and shape of a bomber’s wings — began to rotate.”

The turbine ran through hundreds of hours of testing up to 1943, often pumping power onto the Central Vermont Public Service Corporation’s electrical grid. The project’s engineers were sure that, technically, the machine worked.

The Smith-Putnam wind turbine stood as a testament to the power of human — and American — ingenuity. A decade before, Soviet engineers had built the world’s largest wind turbine, a 100-kilowatt machine. Now the Yanks had constructed their own, 10 times more powerful.

Time concluded its article on the project with a hopeful half-prediction, “New England ranges may someday rival Holland as a land of windmills.” This was, after all, merely the prototype for whole lines of turbines that would be more resistant to German bombs than a centralized coal plant.

Unluckily, a bearing broke in 1943, and the war prevented its replacement until 1945. With the war waning, the wind machine got back up and running in the spring of that year. And that’s when disaster struck.

At midnight on March 26, 1945, the wind was blowing at a sleepy 5 miles an hour, too slow to make electricity. Harold Perry, a construction foreman, had been working nonstop for the 23 grueling days since the renewable power plant had gone back online after repairs. That night, an elevator carried Perry 100 feet up through the oil-derrick–like tower to the small, armored building that housed the controls for the world’s largest wind machine. Atop the rural Vermont mountaintop known as Grandpa’s Knob, Perry didn’t know that the grandest wind experiment in the first few millennia of human existence was about to fail….

At exactly 3:10 a.m. on March 26, 1945, after more than 1,100 hours of operation, the Smith-Putnam turbine experienced an epic failure. One of the turbine’s blades broke clean off and went sailing 750 feet through the night. The force of the breaking blade threw Perry off his feet, as the unbalanced machine shook like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise when it’s under attack…. What went wrong is as obvious as a 75-foot blade lying on the ground. The existence and failure of the turbine hurt renewable-energy advocates in political debates, too.

At congressional hearings in 1951 to provide increased wind-power funding, one historian notes, “L]egislators considered Putnam’s blade failure to have proved the whole endeavor a washout.” The machine’s failure played right into the hands of those committed to other forms of electrical production: fossil, atomic or solar….

But the turbine wasn’t a failure for the thousands of wind engineers who’ve come after Putnam. “Interest in developing large wind-electric generating systems in the United States was stimulated primarily by one man, Palmer C. Putnam,” a crisis-induced 1973 NASA research report on alternative energy found.

… the S. Morgan Smith Company, which had bankrolled the project, assigned their patents to the public domain and asked Putnam to write a book detailing what happened, so that others could continue the work. They made the wind data they’d gathered from the region public. This turns out to have been immensely helpful to later generations. Without the unique experiment, nothing would have been known about large-scale systems. Less data means more risk — and risk is expensive in big power-plant projects. By gathering data on what did and didn’t work, Putnam saved time and money for subsequent researchers….

Despite Putnam’s initial hopes, his turbine was never rebuilt, nor any more on its exact model. Within six months of the catastrophic blade failure, the S. Morgan Smith Company shut down its wind program. They pulled the plug instead of plunking down the additional $300,000 that Putnam needed. The blade was carted off, the turbine torn down. A cellphone tower now adorns Grandpa’s Knob. Only the foundation of the great wind machine remains.


Note: For more information on Grandpa’s Knob, see Palmer Putnam, Power from the Wind (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company, 1948) and Putnam. Energy for the Future (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1953), pp. 188–191, 243–244.

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