The Wind Power Debate — Bob McCullough

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(HOST) Yesterday, as part of our special commentary series on the wind power debate in Vermont, historian Tyler Resch recalled newspaperman Bob Mitchel’s editorial about how wind-generated power got its start on Grandpa’s Knob. But that wasn’t Vermont’s only contribution to the development of wind power technology, according to historian Bob McCullough.

(MCCULLOUGH) North-bound travelers on Interstate 89 in South Burlington have a clear view of an impressive wind turbine. The spinning blades always shift to the tower’s lee side, making it easy for passersby to calculate wind direction.

Curiosity finally led me to the company that owns the turbine, and I learned that it’s a prototype for testing cold weather performance. When wind speed reaches eleven miles an hour, the three white blades start to turn. At winds of twenty-five miles per hour, it produces fifty kilowatts of electricity.

Yet most drivers probably don’t notice another wind engine on the northerly side of the interstate, opposite the turbine. This is an old Aermotor windmill, and its wheel is almost always spinning to pump water at a farm where two brick office buildings now stand near an old barn. The Aermotor’s wheel turns away from the wind as velocity increases, but its wind vane always turns the blades back into position as wind speed slows. The windmill can be difficult to see against the backdrop of trees, unless its silver blades reflect sunlight.

These two wind machines, roughly a mile apart, are nevertheless separated by a century of technology.

Remarkably, the story of the Aermotor begins in Vermont. In 1854, Marlboro resident Daniel Halladay patented a self-governing windmill with a wind vane that automatically turned the wheel into the wind. He also devised wooden blades that changed angle as wind speed increased, moving “out of sail” to prevent damage to the blades.

With another Vermonter, John Burnham, he established the Halladay Wind Mill Company in Connecticut. Mid-western farms beckoned, though, and Burnham moved to Batavia, Illinois, where he formed the U.S. Wind Engine and Pump Company to market Halladay’s popular machine.

During the early 1880s, the Illinois concern began experimenting with durable, all-metal mills. One of the firm’s engineers, Thomas Perry, built a wind tunnel and designed a mill with concave blades of steel fastened to thin metal rims to reduce wind resistance. The wheel turned so fast, though, that Perry devised a special system of gears to drive single pump strokes.

When U.S. Wind Engine declined to change Halladay’s standard design, Perry formed his own business, the Aermotor Company, in 1888. That firm grew quickly, hastening the conversion of wooden mills to metal and selling to farmers everywhere, including Vermont. The Aermotor that stands in South Burlington today is a fine example of that hundred-year-old design, and rare in New England.

As I pass between these two wind engines during trips between Montpelier and Burlington, I often consider the current debate about wind power in Vermont. Those who fear the aesthetic impact of wind farms on Vermont’s landscapes are no doubt well intentioned. Yet landscape features are also valuable for the stories they tell, and these stories draw us more deeply into the landscape itself, changing our perspective and strengthening our understanding of land-use concerns. What’s more, our landscapes are full of such features, each with its own richly-rewarding history just waiting to be explored.

I’m Bob McCullough of Montpelier.

Bob McCullough teaches in the Historic Preservation program at UVM.

The wind debate isn’t just happening in Vermont. On Monday morning commentator Mike Martin considers how Europeans are coping with this new technology.

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