Harness the Wind

12 Jun

By 1931, the Great Depression had brought economic ruin, unemployment, and mass suffering to the Midwest. Yet certain historic developments of the 1920’s continued to survive at least in some reduced form. One of the most important of these was the use of windmills on farms to produce a localized source of electrical energy.

In Omaha, Nebraska a small factory had begun to turn out small, inexpensive power generators that large, middle, and even small farmers had purchased before 1929. But the collapse of agricultural prices had caused a flood of foreclosures and bankruptcies, so that demand for wind mills had dropped to nearly zero. The man who was president, owner, and manager of Prairie Wind Turbines was Jim Blyth, a mechanical engineer who had dedicated himself to the perfection and application of the natural power of the winds on the Great Plains.

This master of innovation found it impossible to win loans from banks in Omaha, or anywhere else in Nebraska, Kansas, or even Iowa. His company faced strict financial deadlines by 1931, forcing the young entrepreneur to travel to Chicago by train in the hope of finding a partner in his visionary projects. Science and technology must not halt in paralysis during this business emergency, he planned to argue in front of the man who was number one in the field of Midwestern electrical generation.

Jim had made an appointment to talk with Thomas Lamb, the president of the Chicago Electric Co., the organizer and head of the largest and most powerful holding company in Midwestern electrical generation. The traveling manufacturer sighed in wonder as he thought of all the local and regional subsidiaries controlled by Lamb’s giant combine. As he looked out the train window at the rolling farmland, so much of it empty and devastated by the collapsing economy, Blyth gritted his teeth. Would he be victorious in winning the support of the power magnate for his plan to revolutionize the world’s source of electricity by harnessing the winds?

Thomas Lamb, a surprisingly small man for an industrial-financial titan, had begun as a personal assistant to Thomas Edison himself. Electrification of major cities had been his carrier course. Finally, he became the architect of a multi-layered empire of production and distribution of power across the Midwest, a pyramid of interlocking units with himself at the summit. The pattern of holding companies allowed him to run and control a half billion dollars of assets through direct ownership of twenty million in investment at the very top level. He had spread his tentacles of power to rapid transit, railroads, electrical equipment, and radio broadcasting. Lamb even owned the first mechanical television station in the country, broadcasting from Chicago.

He had learned the lesson of keeping aware of the newest advances and breakthroughs in technology and science. That sensitivity to innovations had helped make him what he was in 1931: one of the most important movers in Herbert Hoover’s America.

The little mogul was curious about what he might pick up from a maverick like Jim Blyth. He studied the towering, skeletal figure with bushy black hair as he came into the president’s office of Commonwealth Electric. He was impressed by the image of sincere dedication that the young man in the blue serge suit exuded.

Thomas Lamb greeted his visitor, came forth and shook his hand, and asked him to sit down. When he had returned behind his teak desk, the electric baron asked him the question at the crux of the matter before them.

“You believe that the future of the power industry lies with wind mills, Mr. Blyth?” he said with a smile.

“Indeed, I do, sir,” replied Jim. “Wind is at this moment producing electricity for scores of farms all through the prairie states. Despite the present economic crisis, there has been no retreat or ending of this trend. Yes, it is hard to sell turbines to farmers losing their land by foreclosure, but there remains a widespread belief that the future lies with what my company is providing them: cheap, efficient electricity that they themselves are able to control completely. They know that I can guarantee them a free and independent source of energy.”

“You are in competition with the companies that I run and control,” cynically said Lamb. “Today, only a small percentage of all farms are connected to systems such as mine. What will the future be if most farmers are someday able to generate their own supply? How will companies like mine ever expand across the land into rural areas? I fear that what you are attempting is at odds with my own program for America’s future, once this Depression ends.”

Jim frowned and continued presenting his plans for future development of wind electricity. “What I foresee is a new, higher stage of evolution of what we have already started on the prairie. We will begin to connect our cities to the surplus power that the winds will be furnishing. Cable lines that collect current from the rural areas can become the source of electric power for our main urban populations. In Nebraska, it will light up Omaha, Lincoln, Bellevue, and other towns. In Kansas, there will be power brought into Wichita, Kansas City, Topeka, and Lawrence. Iowa will have lines to Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Sioux City, Davenport, and others.

“There shall be no limit to how many communities can hook up to a grid that covers all of the Great Plains. That is where your own Commonwealth system centered in Chicago comes in. Wind power can potentially replace your present-day dependence upon energy originating in coal-burning generators. Wind power will be cheaper and therefore more profitable for your family of electric companies, Mr. Lamb.”

The latter thought deeply for several moments before he responded to what he had just heard. He slowly, carefully phrased his reply.

“You have told me so much today that I will need considerable time to mull it all over and decide what my attitude is going to be. But I can already conceive of major obstacles to the scheme you outlined to me.

“We all know that the prairie winds come and go, but are never constant or continuous. Their force is one of varying speed and intensity. How can that be a general source of electricity for cities, towns, and urban communities? It is the nature of the power my companies produce that it must be used and consumed at once, without delay. There are no means of storing up electricity from periods of high surplus to times of scarcity. It cannot be preserved, but has to be consumed as soon as we create it in our power plants. Otherwise, it is lost forever.

“I cannot see how a wind network can operate as a going business. Therefore, I have to turn down your conception as impossible and impractical. It cannot replace the system that operates today. There must be central generators that distribute power to large regional areas and not the opposite, as you envision our future.

“I cannot see my web of companies applying wind power. It will not work, young man.”

Lamb looked away, signaling to Jim that their meeting was over and that he should leave.

The disappointed manufacturer of windmill generators sat thinking for hours that evening in his downtown Chicago hotel room. He toned the radio furnished him to a station owned by Thomas Lamb, listening to a band play current hit songs: “Star Dust”, “Dancing in the Dark”, “Sweet and Lovely”, “Just One More Chance”, “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain”, “Minnie the Moocher”, etc. His mind wandered in many directions as he considered what options he had left after the defeat he had suffered that day. Which road should he take after Lamb had dashed his hopes for a long-range partnership? What was left for him to do now?

His thoughts finally centered on the problem that Lamb had presented to him. How could wind-generated electricity be preserved or stored into slack periods? How could the curve of production be leveled out?

Jim’s mind came to concentrate on the possibility of new forms of batteries, large and efficient enough to serve an entire regional electric grid.

Was it feasible with the technical means available in the year 1931?

He decided to find someone in Chicago who could advise him on the science and technology of storage batteries.

The hunt for guidance began for Jim at the library of the Illinois Institute of Technology. He searched through many technical journals and periodicals for any leads on advanced research in the area if improved storage batteries. Only after several hours of looking at articles on the subject did he come across the name of Assistant Professor Michael Trout, teaching chemistry at that very institution. The man had published an article on a new nickel-cadmium battery he had worked on for a number of years. He had experimented with a variety of different combinations and arrangements, and had measured the advantages and disadvantages of each of them.

This is the person I must talk with at once, he concluded excitedly.

It was fortunate that the educator was in his office and not engaged in anything at the moment, so that he was free and willing to see the stranger there from Omaha.

Jim Blyth introduced himself. The fat, short man with an old-fashioned beard and moustache rose and shook his hand, then asked him to take a chair and himself sat down again.

“How can I be of service to you, sir?” asked the professor named Michael Trout.

“I am in the manufacturing business out in Omaha, and my main product is electricity-generating wind apparatuses for plains’ farmers. As I go forward and develop more advanced models and machinery, one major obstacle has been the absence of adequate batteries able to store electrical charges. That lack limits and hobbles progress in my field.

“Having learned that you happen to be one of the world’s foremost experts in the area of electrical batteries, I have decided to turn to you. Your knowledge and experience can be of enormous value to me as I make important decisions on ordering and purchasing new batteries for my operations.

“I wish to hire you, sir, as scientific and technical advisor to my firm. Since I was already here in Chicago on company business, I took the liberty of coming here and introducing myself. My sincere hope is that you will agree to become part of a magnificent project with which I plan to revolutionize the generation and distribution of electrical energy in America. In spite of our present Depression crisis, I believe that a new system can begin to take over our industry, cities, and farms. The central cog on the new pattern will be wind mill turbines out on the Great Plains. It will be cheaper and more convenient than how we generate our energy today, in 1931.”

The face of Michael Trout was ghostly pale by now. He turned his hazel eyes away from the strange visitor as he asked him an important question.

“Why do you believe that batteries are so central to such a wind-based system of power?”

Jim pursed his thick lips. “I realize that the electric companies now operating and in control of the grids everywhere are opposed to anything such as this that would ruin their monopolies. They argue against my plan, saying that wind power can only operate in limited, local areas, at times no larger than a single farm or village.

“But think of what advanced batteries, larger and longer lasting, could accomplish. They would destroy the handicap of periods of low wind velocity. A large region, interconnected and balanced, would become free of limits set by specific weather conditions. There would be easy transmission of power between surplus and deficit points and regions.

“I can foresee the day in the future when the entire Midwest and all the prairie states become an integrated, consolidated network where there is always electricity flowing from somewhere to places in need of it.

“And I truly believe that perfected batteries can be the main instrument for storing and sharing of wind power generated on tens of thousands of sites on our farms.”

Both men, excited and out of breath, looked confidently at each other. “That is very interesting,” said Trout. “Tell me more about how you plan to construct such a new electrical industry.”

Jim Blyth decided that he had to spend the following week in Chicago in order to learn all that Michael Trout could teach him about the future possibilities of battery development and evolution.

“Today, in 1931, we utilize only a fraction of what we know about the storage of electrical energy,” the professor insisted over and over. “The Edison battery, based on nickel and iron components, has never been exploited to its full capacity. We can see its potential in what is left of the once dominant electric car, in fork lifts, and railroad signaling systems, but elsewhere it has been ignored or suppressed.

“My own research has centered upon a cadmium-cobalt type of battery, but one where the cathode consists of a combination of cobalt oxide with lithium, a rare and expensive material. And I have tried out a mixture of potassium hydroxide and lithium hydroxide as a possible battery electrolyte. This complex combination of metals has shown great promise in the experiments I have carried out so far.

“I believe that I am on the road to constructing a unit with fabulous capacity for energy storage, my friend. It is close to completion, needing only a minor degree of adjustment, correction, and improvement. Then, I will be able to present to the world a complicated but perfected cadmium-cobalt-lithium battery system with incredible possibilities of useful application.”

“You have given me a magnificent perspective to think about and consider,” declared the overwhelmed windmill manufacturer. “I need to return to Omaha and see to company business matters, but I intend to return to Chicago as soon as I hear from you that your research has confirmed that the cadmium-cobalt-lithium combination is the right one for turning electrical power upside-down.”

Jim returned to Omaha on the Burlington Zephyr, preferring it to The Arrow of The Milwaukee Road Railroad.

Ahead lay weeks of waiting for word from the professor who was considered the world’s top expert on batteries and their potentials. When would Michael Trout make his decision on aiding in the establishment of a wind power network in the Great Plains? The future of his plan and dream depended upon obtaining a perfected storage instrument for the new generation system.

In the meanwhile, Jim bought himself one of the new mechanical scan television receivers. The Omaha tower broadcasting small pictures on radio waves had begun operating that summer. The viewing screen was only a few inches wide, the visual signal formed on a spinning scanner device lit up by a tiny neon tube. This medium is still primitive and not very clear, the buyer concluded as he watched the screen evenings at his home.

He grew impatient as time passed and he received no communication from Professor Trout in Chicago.

Economic conditions everywhere were worsening month by month, in a continuous decline.

It was late on a Saturday afternoon in September that a messenger boy on bicycle delivered a telegram for him at his suburban home. Jim ripped the envelope open and read the brief, succinct message from Michael Trout.

“I must inform you that I cannot provide any new battery to your company. An agreement has been reached with another electric system.”

It was signed Professor Michael Trout.

Jim felt as if his head was spinning and whirling. What did this mean? How could it be?

He reread the telegram a second, then a third and a fourth time.

It was now necessary to speak with the scientist, regardless of the hour or the circumstances.

He had to find out what was behind this sudden, unforeseeable reversal. Did he dare call it perfidy or betrayal?

Jim rushed across his large living room and picked up his tall, 1920’s receiver. He dialed the local operator and asked to be put on a long-distance line.

“I want Mr. Michael Trout in Chicago,” he barked at the long-distance operator once he was connected to her.

Within half a minute or so, he heard the faraway ring of the telephone belonging to the battery researcher.

When the noise ended, he heard a familiar voice say “Hello.”

“This is Jim Blyth. I just got your telegram. What does it mean? What have you done to me?”

The voice of Trout was halting, as if ashamed and embarrassed by what had been done.

“I had to do it, Jim. I’m sorry that I had to keep my talks and negotiations with Mr. Lamb secret, but he insisted on that.”

“Mr. Lamb? You mean Thomas Lamb of Commonwealth Electric?”

“Yes. He is a very sincere individual. He swore to me that he will only use the battery to expand the area and the scope of service of his companies throughout the Midwest. It will improve the telephone one hundred percent.”

For several seconds, Jim was unable to say anything. “You believed him?” he finally inquired.

“A large, new laboratory here at the Institute has been promised, and I will be named its Director. There will be unlimited research on new batteries and their applications. Our society will become one with batteries everywhere, doing marvelous things for humanity. The sky is the only limit, Mr. Lamb says. I have to believe someone as famous as he is.”

“What about the plans for wind-driven power generation?” suddenly demanded Jim. “How will I ever get the kind of batteries that can make a wind grid possible?”

“We have not discussed that specific subject, but I am certain that such a progressive leader as Thomas Lamb would never stand in the way of something so innovative and beneficial.”

Jim Blyth found it impossible to say anything to the person capable of making such a childlike statement.

“Good luck, my friend,” he said and then hung up his telephone.


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