During the second half of the 20th century, as the risks and environmental toll of fossil fuel reliance grew increasingly apparent, there was a surge of interest in developing cleaner, renewable sources of energy. One of the foremost among these clean energy technologies has been wind power. Today, over 83 countries1 make use of wind power, with Denmark deriving 40% of their electricity from wind farms. But who discovered wind energy?
The history of mankind's use of the wind as an energy source is surprisingly long. In fact, it could be classified as one of humanity’s oldest power sources. To trace wind energy back to its ultimate roots, we need to go back in time, beyond the dawn of recorded history.
Ancient Sails: The First Use of Wind Power
Sailing has a long and illustrious history, going back an astounding 8,000 years.
While the use of seaworthy boats has been noted as far back as 45,000 B.C.E. by the colonization of Australia, the use of sails to power a vessel came later. Some of the earliest evidence of sail technology comes from the Cucuteni-Tryptillian culture in Eastern Europe, whose ceramics depict sailing boats around the sixth millennium BCE. By 3,000 BCE, proto-Austronesian people were sailing across the islands of the South Pacific. Mesopotamian evidence from slightly later also provides evidence of sailing boats, and later, around 3200 BCE, sails had been developed in Egypt.
A range of diverse world cultures have made use of this technology, from Polynesian cultures, to imperial China, to Europe during the “Age of Sail.”
Windmills: A New Way to Harness the Wind
Maritime exploration wasn't the only historical use of wind as a power source.
Windmills were first used in Hellenistic Greece. Heron of Alexandria (c. 10-70 AD), a Greek engineer and accomplished mathematician, invented an organ powered by a windwheel, which powered a piston that forced air through the organ's pipes.
Windmill technology took off in central Persia in the ninth century A.D., in the form of "panemone windmills" with sails rotating in a horizontal plane. Using six to twelve sails covered with reeds, early windmills were used to grind grain or to draw water.
Historians are unsure whether these earlier Near Eastern windmills directly inspired the later development of European windmills, first used in France and Belgium during the late 12th century. European windmills, used to grind cereal grains into flour, underwent numerous developments and improvements during the late Middle Ages and early Modern period. To this day, windmills remain an iconic symbol of many localities in Northern Europe, notably Holland.
Modern Wind Power: Using Wind to Generate Electricity
As far back as 1877, a windmill was first used as a means of generating electricity.
Designed by Professor James Blyth of Anderson’s College in Scotland, this 10-meter-high turbine was successfully used to charge accumulators to power his holiday cottage in Kincardinshire.
While wind power did see further development during the early to mid 20th century, the real push for its development began in the early 1970s. It was at this time that concerns with fossil fuel use came to a head. From 1974 through the mid-1980s, funding from the National Science Foundation and the US Department of Energy enabled NASA to develop the United States' first utility-scale wind turbines. Four different turbine designs were developed, pioneering the technology that led to the efficient wind farms of today. It was also around this time that NASA developed the Viterna method, a model that takes into account the three dimensional effects and stall behavior of turbines to better predict their performance.
In the later 1980's and early 1990's, there was a temporary decline in interest and funding for wind research. This was driven partly by very low oil prices at the time, which made wind power uneconomical in comparison. After the turn of the 21st century, global crises and steep oil prices, combined with concerns over global warming and fossil fuel depletion, brought wind energy’s potential back into the public consciousness.
Today, ongoing advancements in wind technology have helped make wind more reliable and efficient than ever as a clean power source. By the end of 2015, there were over 314,000 turbines worldwide2, generating about 3.7% of the world’s electricity. As wind turbines continue to be refined and improved, wind power stands as one of the most important alternative energy sources for the 21st century and beyond.