Charles Brush’s Electrifying Wind Dynamo

It was the summer of 1887, and Charles Brush was at it again. 

Which in itself was no great surprise. In the 1880s, Clevelanders out for an evening stroll along Euclid Avenue–home to many of the city’s most palatial dwellings–were used to strange goings on at the Brush mansion.  Most nights, passersby could glimpse sudden, bright flashes through the windows of Brush’s basement laboratory, where the esteemed inventor tinkered with dynamos, electromagnet, and other accouterments of electricity–the seemingly magical force transforming modern life.

In the summer of 1887, though, Brush’s latest project was happening not underground and at night but in full daylight in his spacious, five-acre backyard, in plain sight of anyone happening by.  Approaching the property, they first heard the grunts and shouts of workmen sweating in the midday sun, the staccato pounding of dozens of hammers driving nails into thick two-by-fours. Those who came even closer and peered over or through cracks in the wooden fence surrounding the compound gawked with curiosity at the source of all that strenuous noise–dozens of laborers constructing … what? A tower of some sort.  But for what purpose? On any given day, the great man himself could be seen among the workers, monitoring their progress with a keen and discerning eye.

As successful (if not as famous) in his day as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell, Brush had made his fortune as the inventor of a new, commercially viable arc lamp–a powerful electric light that in the 1880s began to replace gas lamps as a more reliable and safer source of outdoor lighting.  Born on a farm near Cleveland in 1849, Brush was a child prodigy of sorts, with an innate aptitude for all things mechanical.  Had he been born a century later, the young Brush likely would have been a cutting edge computer engineer.  Coming of age in the later half of the 19th century, Brush was fascinated by the killer app of his time: electricity.  Like Henry Ford (another 19th century American farm boy turned pioneering mechanic), Brush shunned the drudgery of farm work in favor of tinkering with crude, homemade dynamos and electromagnets.  At age 12 he cobbled together a glass bottle, a piece of leather, and amalgam from a broken mirror to make a static electric machine.  Batteries, induction coils and small electric motors followed in quick succession.#  Recognizing that their brilliant son was destined for greater things than sowing fields and harvesting grain, Brush’s parents sent him at considerable expense to Central High School in Cleveland, (where his classmates included a young John D. Rockefeller, who would go on to change the world of energy in his own right).#

A few years later, after graduating from the University of Michigan with a degree in mining engineering (there was as yet no such degree as electrical engineering) in the late 1860s, Brush worked in the iron-ore and pig iron business to earn a living and, in his spare time, pursued his passion for all things electrical.  Working with equipment provided by the Telegraph Supply Company of Cleveland, he produced two significant inventions: an improved arc light (simpler, more reliable, and easier to regulate than previous designs) and a more efficient, inexpensive dynamo to produce electricity to power the arc light.  In the spring of 1879 Brush staged a public demonstration, erecting twelve arc lamps in Cleveland’s Monumental Park, where thousands of curious onlookers–including reporters from many of the nation’s most prominent newspapers–gathered for the occasion.  When the lamps were switched on, suddenly illuminating the park with purplish light, the crowd gasped.  The event was a rousing success, resulting in widespread acclaim for Brush and thousands of orders for his arc lamps.  By the early 1880s, more than six thousand Brush arc lamps were illuminating cities across the country.  Flush with success and cash, Brush founded the Brush Electric Company, putting him on par with Thomas Edison as visionary man of science at the burgeoning of the age of electricity.

But unlike Edison, who courted publicity and was as ingenious in promoting himself as he was at inventing new uses for electricity, Brush was a solitary inventor, preferring late nights alone tinkering away in his lab to soaking in the limelight.  The ideas for generating and using electricity he developed typically remained under wraps until Brush worked out all the details and refinements.  And so nobody could really have guessed what Brush was up to in his backyard in 1887. Rumors circulated throughout the summer; Brush was building a replica of the biblical Tower of Babel, or perhaps an observatory. Few details were forthcoming, least of all from Brush himself.  But as the months passed and the rectangular tower grew to nearly 60 feet in height, its purpose gradually became clear.  Brush attached a wind rotor–a giant wheel 56 feet in diameter, composed of 144 wooden, propeller-like blades with a total “sail surface” of 1,800 square feet–and a 60-foot-long tail vain to turn the blades into oncoming wind.

By the end of 1888, the project was complete. To the astonishment of his neighbors and of the entire city of Cleveland, Brush had built an enormous, 80,000 pound windmill.  Windmills were nothing new, of course.  They’d been used in Europe for centuries to grind grain into flour, and during the 19th century the iconic machines spread rapidly across the American countryside.  Every American farmer and rancher had a least one windmill, sometimes dozens, used mainly to pump water for irrigation.  What was new about Brush’s windmill was not only its gigantic size but, even more incredible, its purpose: to make electricity.  As it turned, the mill’s many bladed wheel spun a specially designed “dynamo” that generated enough electricity to charge twelve large batteries housed in Brush’s lab.  He used the batteries to power 350 incandescent light bulbs, two arc lights, and several small motors.  Brush’s was the first house in Cleveland to boast electric lighting.

Working alone and in secret, Brush had made real what many 19th century amateur and professional inventors and electricity aficionados of all stripes had been debating for several years: the possibility of storing wind power for practical use.  As early as 1860, pioneering American electrical engineer Moses Farmer registered a patent for an electricity generating windmill, although there’s no evidence he succeeded in building a working model.  (Farmer also invented the first electric fire alarm system.)#  In 1883, Scientific American ran a series of articles on the pressing problem of creating and storing power generated by natural forces.  “The great question of all questions at the present day … is, How can we best turn to account the natural forces which are in play about us,” the magazine’s editors wrote in an open letter to readers.  Wind, especially, captured and vexed the imagination.  “It seems incomprehensible,” the letter continued, “that such a ready and potent agent [as the wind] should escape practical use for completely as it does.”  The reason, the authors admitted, was all too clear: the unsteady and unreliable nature of wind, “sometimes furious, sometimes absolutely nothing, and at all times unsteady and capricious.”  Nevertheless, the editors were not ready to concede; instead, they issued a challenge.  “How shall we store the power that may come to us by day or by night, Sundays and week days, gathering it at the time when we do not need it and preserving it till we do?  This is the problem.  Who is the man to solve it?”

The magazine entertained dozens of possible answers.  One dispatch from the Electrical Exhibition of 1882 at the Crystal Palace in London described an experimental portable battery able to store wind-generated electricity.  “The rotation of the windmill, running day or night steadily or intermittently … will have its power stored up and held in the secondary battery,” the article noted approvingly, “and by the touch of a button to be instantly delivered and put to use when wanted in the form of light, heat, or power.”#  Other articles considered using wind-powered motors to elevate sand (which could later be released as needed to spin a turbine) and to compress air (which, like the sand, could then be released as a source of power).

Yet through the late 1880s, none of the clever schemes proposed to harness and store wind energy had been realized.  And so when Brush unveiled his towering wind-powered dynamo, he took the scientific world by surprise.  In 1890, Scientific American put Brush’s groundbreaking invention on its cover; inside, an accompanying lead article recognized Brush’s singular achievement.  “Few have dared to grapple with it, for the question not only involved the motive power itself and the dynamo, but also the means of transmitting the power of the wheel to the dynamo, and apparatus for regulating, storing and utilizing the current,” the article explained.  That Brush had triumphed when so many others had failed merited special praise.  “As an example of thoroughgoing engineering work,” the article claimed, “it [Brush’s windmill] cannot be excelled.”

But while Brush’s ingenious wind power system could not be excelled, neither could it be replicated on a wide scale.  Unlike the Brush arc light, which had revolutionized the outdoor lighting industry and helped usher in the age of the “Great White Way” in American cities large and small, his electricity generating windmill was a one-off, a personal project probably inspired by Brush’s desire for a reliable source of electricity in the days before centralized power stations became widespread.  Although Brush kept the windmill running for nearly a decade even after hooking up to the city grid around the turn of the century (when coal-generated electricity became available in Cleveland), he never attempted to commercialize or even patent his wind power system.  Perhaps, as Robert Righter notes in Wind Energy in America: A History, Brush rightly understood that his mammoth wind machine was simply too large, costly, and complex to compete with Edison’s model of a centralized power station channeling electricity throughout cities and town on a grid-like system of poles and wires.  Brush dismantled the wooden sails in 1908, effectively ending the windmill’s career as a power generator.

Ultimately, Brush’s ingenious wind tower belonged more to the late Victorian age of invention–an era rapidly that was rapidly being pushed aside by the new century’s fixation with electricity and its seemingly endless, even magical potential began to transform the world.#  Instead of ushering in an age of clean, renewable, power, Brush and his mill were lost to history.#

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