We’re in the middle of a wind-power boom. Installed capacity has increased from just over 4,000 MW in 2001 to close to 70,000 MW today. This happened once before in the United States, although with a tamer technology.
Between 1920 and 1935, farmers and ranchers purchased a million wind chargers—not the iconic windmills used since the 1850s to pump water for crops and livestock and still seen along rural back roads, but small, propeller-driven electricity generators.
Old black-and-white photographs show the propellers and attached tail vanes sticking up from farmhouse and barn roofs like TV antennas. Others perched atop lightweight steel towers. A big, prosperous farm might have had two or three towers.
The essential components were the propeller and tail, an attached generator, and wires leading indoors to a control panel and a battery.
The smallest wind chargers were ideal for charging radio batteries. At its peak, the Wincharger Corporation, the leading manufacturer, produced 2,000 of its 6-volt “DeLuxe” models each day at its factory in Sioux City, Iowa. The machines sold for $44 or, better yet, $15 when purchased with a Zenith radio and a 6-volt battery.
A newspaper ad promised the DeLuxe would “END ALL Recharging Nuisance!” at a cost of “ONLY 50 CENTS A YEAR” to operate. Owning a Wincharger was considerably more convenient and cheaper than taking the battery to the filling station in town to be recharged every few days. Farmers soon discovered these batteries could also keep a lightbulb glowing while the family was gathered in the parlor to listen to The Jack Benny Program or Fibber McGee and Molly. They wanted more electric lights, and manufacturers responded by making bigger and bigger wind chargers.
Wincharger came out with a larger radio charger and then launched the 650-watt “Famous” model, followed by the 1,200-watt “Giant,” which boasted an output of “175,000 watt-hours per month.”
Another Iowa company, Parris-Dunn Corporation, made wind chargers ranging in size from 135 watts to 3,000 watts. Between 1934 and 1941, the company shipped 37,000 units to all 48 states and 93 foreign countries.
The “performance, quality, and dependability leader,” according to the wind-charger history buffs who maintain the information-packed website Windcharger.org, was the Jacobs Wind Electric Company out of Minneapolis. It was started in 1931 by two inventive brothers who grew up on a windy ranch in eastern Montana.
Their Model 45 (45 amps) sold for $290. A 50-ft. tower to mount the generator, propeller, and tail vane added $365 to the purchase, and a 440-amp-hour battery brought the total to $830.
Jacobs Wind Energy soon was making bigger models to compete with the rural market-leading Delco-Light Plant, which ran on gasoline. And at one point, they teamed up with Briggs and Stratton Corporation to make a combination diesel generator/wind charger that promised to cut fuel costs and noise when the wind was blowing and provide continuous power for lights and appliances when it was not.
Each of these companies hired top engineers and had patented technology. Wincharger was known for an air-brake governor that prevented damage when the wind exceeded 20 mph. Paris-Dunn’s gyroscopic governor tilted the propeller and generator up and away from the wind. Jacobs’ Master Mind control panel regulated battery charging so well that the company could offer an unconditional 10-year warranty on its batteries, as opposed to the industry standard of three years.
But none of this mechanical genius could stand up to the convenience and affordability of central-station power and the success that the federal Rural Electrification Administration had in making it available to farms, ranches, and small towns. Starting in the late 1930s, electric co-ops regularly lopped off county-size chunks of the wind-charger market, and this didn’t let up until the early 1950s.
Lagging sales forced Paris-Dunn to manufacture military training rifles during World War II and to close its doors in 1949. Wincharger limped along by starting a line of rotary inverters (DC to AC). When an epic flood ruined its factory in 1953, the company decided not to rebuild. Jacobs was gone three years later.