“Here’s good wind, here’s pretty wind:” A whirlwind overview of the fascinating wind turbine of French engineer Louis Constantin, and of a few other things besides that, part 2
Hello, my reading friend. How is life in your corner of the universe? […] Good, good. This is certainly not the case for everyone. Some people are more equal than others, I guess. Sorry, sorry.
Would you like to deepen your knowledge of wind energy? […] Good, good.
You will obviously remember that the main character in our story was / is a French engineer named Louis Constantin.
I will not teach you anything, my erudite reading friend, by emphasising that Constantin was not the first Homo sapiens to propose the harnessing of wind energy to produce electricity through wind turbines. In fact, the Belgian physicist / inventor Florisse Nollet might, I repeat might, have been the first researcher to propose such a concept, around 1840-41.
That was very cool indeed given that the first known, I repeat known, application, at least to me, of an electric motor dated from 1835. That year, in the Netherlands, a chemistry professor and an instrument maker, Sibrandus Stratingh and Christiaan Becker, put together a miniature electric vehicle, which can still be seen today, in 2023, at the Universiteitsmuseum Groningen, in Groningen, Netherlands.
The Austro-Hungarian engineer Josef Friedlander demonstrated the harnessing of wind energy to produce electricity through a wind turbine as part of an international exhibition, the Internationale Elektrische Ausstellung, a huge and… electrifying, sorry, sorry, exhibition, held in Vienna, Austro-Hungarian Empire, from August to October 1883. To do this, he used a horizontal axis wind turbine of approximately 6.55 metres (21.5 feet) in diameter manufactured by a world leader in water pumping using such devices, the American firm United States Wind Engine and Pump Company. Said wind turbine powered tools, light bulbs and a thresher.
The 1895 wind turbine of Scottish electrical engineer / professor James Blyth, Marykirk, Scotland. Rankin Kennedy, The Book of Modern Engines and Power Generators, vol. 1. (London: Caxton, 1912), fig. 35.
Between 1887 and 1891, Scottish electrical engineer / professor James Blyth supervised the construction of 3 wind turbines. His 1891 concept was a wind turbine with a vertical axis and 6 wooden cups whose electricity, stored in accumulators, powered the light bulbs of his holiday home for more than 20 years, a holiday home which thus became the first residence in the world to be lit by electricity produced by the wind.
Incidentally, Blyth obtained a British patent for that concept in 1891.
By the way, the 1891 wind turbine was inspired by the cup anemometer developed around 1845 by the Anglo-Irish astronomer / physicist John Thomas Romney Robinson, an anemometer that you and I know very well, do we not?
Would you believe that Blyth allowed a Scottish engineering firm to erect a huge wind turbine based on his 1891 design, in 1895, to provide emergency power to the Royal Lunatic Asylum, Infirmary and Dispensary in Montrose, Scotland – another world first in all likelihood? That piece of equipment remained operational for many years.
Before I forget, Blyth was the author of a prescient comment, to say the least: “any fool can make a wind turbine go round to generate electricity, but the challenge is to make one that can be left unattended without over-speeding to destruction.”
In 1887, the duke of Feltre, born Charles-Marie-Michel de Goyon, and a young engineer named Raoul de l’Angle-Beaumanoir began experiments using a horizontal axis wind turbine by United States Wind Engine and Pump with a diameter of approximately 12.2 metres (40 feet) which produced electricity which, once stored in accumulators, was to be supplied, in return for payment, to consumers living near Le Havre, France. The dynamic duo quickly abandoned that idea, however. It proposed to the Ministère des Travaux publics to power a lighthouse located near that port city.
It should be noted that those experiments took place at the same time as the Exposition maritime internationale du Havre, which was held from May to September 1887.
Said experiments apparently gave fairly good results but the energy thus produced turned out to be quite expensive. In addition, the wind turbine was heavily damaged by storms during the winter of 1887-88.
The huge wind turbine located near the opulent mansion of American inventor / entrepreneur / engineer Charles Francis Brush, Cleveland, Ohio. Anon., “The Windmill Dynamo and Electric Light Plant of Mr. Charles F. Brush, Cleveland, O.” Scientific American, 20 December 1890, 383.
In 1888, American inventor / entrepreneur / engineer Charles Francis Brush oversaw the construction, near his opulent mansion, of a 144-blade horizontal-axis wind turbine approximately 17 metres (56 feet) in diameter, the first device of the kind with automatic operation in the world by the way, to avoid its self-destruction by violent winds. The electricity thus produced, stored in accumulators, powered for many years the numerous electric bulbs of said manor, which thus became the first North American residence to be lit by electricity produced by the wind.
Two of the wind turbines developed by Danish teacher / meteorologist / inventor Poul La Cour, Askov, Denmark, circa 1897. Poul La Cour Museet.
In 1891, Danish teacher / meteorologist / inventor Poul La Cour supervised the construction of a horizontal axis wind turbine with a diameter of 11.6 metres (about 38 feet) on the grounds of an adult secondary school, Askov Højskole, in… Askov, Denmark. Judging the accumulators of the time to be too expensive, the Danish Edison, as he was often nicknamed, used the electricity thus produced to extract by electrolysis the hydrogen contained in a water basin. La Cour used that flammable gas to light the school. Askov Højskole thus became the first educational institution in the world to be lit by electricity produced by the wind, if only indirectly.
A little something that La Cour had not expected was the occasional presence of oxygen in the hydrogen used to light Askov Højskole. When that mixture was ignited to light the school, its combustion proved somewhat more violent that than of the more usual mixture of air and hydrogen. If truth be told, the personnel of the school had to replace the windows of several buildings on several occasions.
And yes, the Edison in question was a well-known American inventor, the brilliant and devious Thomas Alva Edison, mentioned in July 2019 and January 2022 issues of our equally formidable blog / bulletin / thingee, but back to our story.
La Cour gradually realised that a wind turbine with a small number of blades and a rapid rotation was more efficient. He drew his inspiration from wind tunnel tests, a world first for a wind turbine designer. La Cour actually supervised the construction of at least two wind tunnel, some of the firsts in the world. Mind you, he also drew his inspiration from close contacts with windmill builders whose practical experience was well established indeed.
La Cour supervised the construction of an improved horizontal axis wind turbine with a diameter of 23 metres (approximately 75.5 feet) on the land of Askov Højskole in 1897. That device soon became the power station of Askov – another world first. That piece of equipment remained operational for many years.
Towards the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, La Cour gave lessons to budding wind electricians at Askov Højskole. In October 1903, he was among the founding members of the Dansk Vindelekhisitets Selskab, the world’s first organisation dedicated to harnessing wind energy to produce electricity through wind turbines. La Cour also published Tidsskrift for Vind-Elektrisitet, the first periodical / magazine dedicated to that harnessing, from January 1904 onward.
Unlike what had happened in the cases of Friedlander, Blyth, de Goyon and Brush, the research carried out by La Cour did not end with his death in April 1908, at the age of 62. Nay. The Dansk Vindelekhisitets Selskab and Tidsskrift for Vind-Elektrisitet continued his work. Let us also not forget the few small Danish firms, including Lykkegaard Maskinfabrik Aktieselskab, which produced wind turbines inspired by La Cour’s concepts from the 1900s onward.
It went without saying that experiments aimed at harnessing wind energy through wind turbines continued after the 1900s, but let us return to the engineer at the heart of our story.
By 1924 at the latest, Constantin began publishing articles where he put forward the idea of harnessing of wind energy through wind turbines. As a matter of fact, France then had problems in terms of energy. Indeed, some French and foreign experts wondered whether the planet’s coal (and oil?) deposits would continue to produce for a long time. Wind, Constantin asserted to the Office national des recherches scientifiques, industrielles et des inventions, was and would be an inexhaustible source of cheap energy.
One of the proposed harnessing sites was the highest point of the Vaucluse mountains, in other words Mont Ventoux, a small mountain also known as Mont Chauve and Géant de Provence which was located very close to the neck of the wood where Constantin had been born.
Wind tunnel tests in Paris, France, at the Laboratoire aérodynamique Eiffel, demonstrated that the two-blade horizontal axis wind turbine / aeromotor / aerogenerator proposed by Constantin was superior in many respects to concepts previously proposed around the world: higher efficiency, higher power and lower cost.
And yes, the Eiffel in question was the world famous French engineer / industrialist Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, born Bönickhausen dit Eiffel, but I digress. Your fault, as usual. Sorry, sorry.
According to Constantin, a wind turbine 30 metres (approximately 98.5 feet) in diameter would produce a power equivalent to approximately 520 kilowatts (approximately 700 imperial horsepower / approximately 710 metric horsepower) and this, 23.934472 hours a day, 365.259636 days a year. A wind turbine 40 metres (about 131.25 feet) in diameter would be even more powerful. It would in fact produce a power equivalent to approximately 815 kilowatts (approximately 1 095 imperial horsepower / approximately 1 110 metric horsepower).
Again according to Constantin, a coal-fired power plant would need 800 to 900 metric tonnes (about 790 to 885 imperial tons / about 880 to 990 American tons) of the black stuff to produce the same amount of energy as the largest wind turbines he had proposed in 1924.
To prevent his wind turbines from racing away and self-destructing in strong winds, Constantin planned to equip them with a feathering device, meaning their blades could be rotated until they faced the wind / were parallel to the direction of that wind.
Constantin’s thought was very innovative indeed. The first aircraft propellers fitted with a feathering mechanism entered service only around 1933-34, in the United States.
Now, did you know that the propeller in question owed its origin to a Canadian engineer? I kid you not.
Wallace Rupert Turnbull began his world-renowned investigation of propeller theory in 1908. He began to look into variable pitch propellers during the First World War, while he worked in England. His 1917 mechanically-operated prototypes having proved impractical, he eventually requested a grant from the Honorary Advisory Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, today’s National Research Council of Canada.
By the way, the Honorary Advisory Council for Scientific and Industrial Research was mentioned in March 2019 and October 2019 issues of our positively stunning blog / bulletin / thingee.
Working in cooperation with a shipyard involved in aircraft manufacturing, Canadian Vickers Limited of Montréal, Québec, Turnbull produced his first electrical propeller in 1927. Flight tested on an Avro 504 trainer of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), at RCAF Station Camp Borden, Ontario that prototype proved reasonably efficient and reliable. That famous propeller currently belongs to the absolutely fabulous Canada Aviation and Space Museum, in Ottawa, Ontario. Said collection also includes not one but two Avro 504s. Yes, yes, two.
Faced with the lack of Canadian backers, however, Turnbull sold his patents to the American firm Reed Propeller Company, which became a subsidiary of the American aeronautical giant Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor Company Incorporated in May 1929. Production of a variable pitch propeller began barely 4 years later.
The importance of the new propeller was such that, during the summer of 1938, Curtiss-Wright Corporation, a new corporate identity adopted in June 1929, took responsibility for the programme away from its Curtiss Aeroplane Division and created a Curtiss Propeller Division with its own distinct factory.
And yes, Canadian Vickers was mentioned many times in our fabulous blog / bulletin / thingee, and this since May 2018. Curtiss Aeroplane & Motor and Curtiss-Wright have been similarly blessed since April and February 2018, as was Turnbull, in March 2019 and October 2020, but I digress.
By 1927 at the latest, Constantin considered the possibility of building wind turbines 50 metres (about 164 feet) in diameter capable of absorbing winds of about 90 kilometres/hour (about 56 miles/hour) without damage. A single example of such a device would save at least 1 000 metric tonnes (around 985 imperial tons / around 1 100 American tons) of coal per year, or so claimed the engineer at the time.
And yes, yours truly realises that the power produced by that 50 metre (about 164 feet) diameter wind turbine does not quite work given the power produced by the 40 metre (about 131.25 feet) diameter wind turbine mentioned above. What can I tell you, I am not an engineer.
And yes, there would obviously be room for many wind turbines at the top of Mont Ventoux. And yes, Constantin was already considering the creation of wind farms / wind parks spread over several windy sites in France.
Indeed, the author of the October 1933 article in the French weekly magazine Science et Monde which introduced the first part of this issue of our unforgettable blog / bulletin / thingee, Jean Labadié, indicated that the summit of Mont Ventoux could accommodate 100 or so wind turbines, thus producing an equivalent power of up to approximately 81.5 megawatts (approximately 109 500 imperial horsepower / approximately 111 000 metric horsepower). Each unit of energy produced by such a wind farm would be cheaper than an identical unit of energy produced by a hydroelectric plant.
Such a wind farm would also save 80 to 90 000 metric tonnes (about 79 to 89 000 imperial tons / about 88 to 99 000 American tons) of coal per year.
The electricity produced by such farms would be transmitted to electric steam boilers whose production would then be stored under pressure in large, well-insulated tanks until that steam was needed to supply the French electricity network.
Labadié, a French aeronautical engineer and well-known aeronautical journalist at the time, also pointed out that the daily average amount of wind energy produced in windy areas of the French territory was more stable than the daily average amount of hydroelectric energy produced on that same territory. He therefore saw no objection to the integration of wind farms into the French electricity network, then dominated by 2 private giants, Union d’électricite Société Anonyme and Énergie Industrielle Société Anonyme.
As you can imagine, Constantin’s ideas intrigued many people, and this as early as 1924. That year, for example, the minister of Public Works, Yves Le Trocquer, asked his officials to examine them. The chief engineer of the Service central des forces hydrauliques et des distributions d’énergie électrique of the ministry, Étienne Genissieu, seemed very interested. According to some, the French government would have been ready to take a half interest in the future firm which would have undertaken the harnessing of Constantin’s ideas. That rumour ultimately did not give rise to any concrete project.
Dare I say that Constantin was among the pioneers of the fast wind turbines used today, along with the aforementioned La Cour? But back to our story.
Unable to find the funds to erect a wind turbine with a diameter of 30 or 40 metres (approximately 98.5 or 131.25 feet), Constantin had to resign himself to supervise that of a proof-of-concept prototype with a diameter of 8-metre (approximately 26.25 feet) in the Massif Central, on a private property, near Roanne, France. The two-blade rotor of that wind turbine, with its blades made of sheet steel, completed no later than May 1927, was inspired by the propellers produced by the former employer of Constantin, Société Anonyme Pierre Levasseur.
That wind turbine was moved to the south of France, in the Camargue, near La Crau / La Crau d’Ieras perhaps, in 1928.
Constantin’s wind turbine initially powered a rotary water pump. The large water tank nearby allowed him to calculate the amount of energy produced by the device.
Indeed, Constantin believed that a series of wind turbines could be used to pump large amounts of water out of the ground and turn into gardens the semi desertic areas of the Camargue.
And yes, Constantin subsequently tried to use his wind turbine to charge accumulators.
Activated by a wind of approximately 72 kilometres/hour (approximately 45 miles/hour), that wind turbine had, according to Constantin, a power of nearly 100 kilowatts (nearly 135 imperial horsepower / more than 135 metric horsepower).
By the way, Constantin had joined forces with a French industrialist / historian / folklorist / engineer to create his wind turbine. Indeed, the aforementioned private property located near Roanne might well have belonged to him. And no, as far as yours truly knows, Paul Eugène Adolphe Fortier-Beaulieu would at best be a very, very, very, very distant relative of mine.
It should be noted that Constantin and Fortier-Beaulieu founded Énergie éolienne, Société d’étude et d’exploitation des procédés Constantin et Fortier-Beaulieu, in Paris, in December 1929. The head office of that small firm moved to Avignon, France, in July 1932. Énergie éolienne might, I repeat might, have disappeared around 1936, for lack of customers.
As a matter of fact, the 29 (!?) governments which succeeded one another in France between 1927 and 1939 were not interested in wind energy. The Great Depression which hit France in 1931, yes, yes, only in 1931, was not a good time to launch such an experiment anyway.
At the risk of derailing our train of thought, did you know that, even though the music of the nursery rhyme Sur le pont d’Avignon, in English on the Avignon bridge, dates from 1853, the title itself appeared only in 1876? At the risk of crushing a cherished childhood memory, the half crumbled, 13th century Saint Bénézet bridge / Pònt de Sant Beneset in Avignon, France, was / is so narrow that it was never really possible to dance on it. Any dancing would therefore have taken place on the banks of the Rhône River, which explained why a version of the nursery rhyme was entitled Sous le pont d’Avignon, in English under the Avignon bridge.
Another monument in Avignon deserves to be mentioned, the Palais des Papes. Yes, yes, there is a papal palace dating from the 14th century in Avignon. Crowned pope in November 1305, Clement V / Clemens Quintus, born Raymond Bertrand de Got, settled in the region of Avignon, Holy Roman Empire, in March 1309. Six other popes would remain in that same region until September 1376, the date of the departure for Rome, State of the church, of Gregory XI / Gregorius Undecimus, born Pierre Roger de Beaufort, the last French pope recognised by the roman catholic church.
And no, to quote, in translation, the French writer / poet / playwright / philosopher / encyclopedist François-Marie Arouet, better known as Voltaire, the hodgepodge of feudal territories scattered across Europe known as the Holy Roman Empire was in no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, but I digress.
The Palais des Papes once again became a papal residence in the fall of 1378, however, following the election of Clement VII / Clemens Septimus, born Robert de Genève, in October. The catch was that the roman catholic church already had a pope, in Rome, Urban VI / Urbanus Sextus, born Bartolemeo Prignano, elected in April. That double papacy signaled the beginning of a pontifical crisis, the Great Western Schism, which would pit Roman popes against Avignonese antipopes until the election, in November 1417, of the Roman Pope Martin V / Martinus Quintus, born Oddone Colonna.
Which brings to mind a few lines from the 1954 radio play Rinse the Blood off My Toga, a Canadian classic, by Johnny Wayne, born Louis Weingarten, and Frank Shuster.
Claudius, a bar keeper: Hiya, Flavius.
Flavius Maximus, a private Roman eye: Hi, Claud. What’s new?
Claudius: Nothin’ much. What’ll ya have?
Flavius Maximus: Give me a martinus.
Claudius: Don’t you mean a martini?
Flavius Maximus: If I wanted two, I’d ask for it. By the way, could I have a bite to eat?
The catch with the election of Martin V was that the antipope in office in 1417, Benedict XIII / Benedictus Tertius Decimus, born Pedro Martínez de Luna y Pérez de Gotor, refused to submit and took refuge in Aragon. His successor, Clement VIII / Clemens Octavus, born Gil Sánchez Muñoz y Carbón, submitted only in July 1429. Would you believe that the roman catholic church cared so little about him that it might not have done him the honour of calling him an antipope?
Before I forget, let me point out that, between June 1409 and May 1415, there were actually 3 (?!) individuals vying for papal power. A pope in Rome, an antipope in Avignon and an antipope in Pisa, Florentine Republic. I kid you not.
And now for completely different, and very sad.
Constantin died more or less in poverty, and well forgotten, in February 1956, just before his 79th birthday, in a sanatorium not far from Paris.
Apart from several large wind turbines erected in several places (Denmark, France, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, United Kingdom, United States and West Germany) during the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, wind energy attracted little interest until the oil crisis of 1973-74.
As of 2023, wind energy represented around 8% of the electricity consumed on Earth and around 3% of the energy consumed on that same planet.
In that same year 2023, fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and oil) still represented around 60% of the electricity consumed on Earth and around 80% of the energy consumed on that same over exploited and sadly polluted planet.
And the cherry on top of that climate change disaster cake is that world energy consumption in 2023 is about 6.25 times greater than in 1950.
Would it be too extreme to suggest that it is high time that interstellar intelligences greater than our own step in and save the Earth from us? Indigenous peoples, subsistence farmers and other caretakers of the Earth, most of them non-white folks oddly enough, or not, are all right, but the rest…
Given the toxic legacies of the industrialised societies to which you and I belong, from the destruction of entire environments to that of unarmed civilian populations, one could argue that we no longer deserve that those intelligences save the Earth for us. Too many dangerous yahoos…
Incidentally, Marvin Pentz Gay, Junior’s song Mercy Mercy Me was released in June 1971. I kid you not.