Vermont windmill: ‘That turbine was built at the S. Morgan Smith company, right here in York’
This Grandpa’ s Knob wind tower in Vermont has links to York County. Background posts: 20 questions and answers to prove your York County WWII smarts, Who were York County’s most influential citizens? – Part I and How come few in York know about S. Morgan Smith anymore?
This blog has featured several posts on York pastor-turned-entrepreneur S. Morgan Smith, his company, his family and his church.
One of his company’s successor’s, Voith Siemens, is best known today for its water turbines – massive machinery that equip the world’s largest hydropower dams.
York Sunday News columnist Gordon Freireich shows (12/14/08) the company stretched from waterpower to wind before windmills became popular in America as an alternative energy source:
Wind turbines are a modern technology, right?
York had a prominent role in a 1941 wind turbine experiment that almost worked.
Rodney Bond, 89, a retired engineer from Allis Chalmers, was reading a November 2008 article in “Reader’s Digest” about alternative energy when a fact jumped off the page at him. There, on page 153, was a graphic showing a time line of alternative energy. At 1941 it stated: “First wind turbine to supply power to a community erected at Grandpa’s Knob, a mountaintop near Rutland, Vermont.”
“That turbine was built at the S. Morgan Smith company, right here in York,” he said.
York on the cutting edge of technology 67 years ago?
A brief history here: S. Morgan Smith became Allis-Chalmers, which, in turn, became today’s Voith Siemens. And 1941 was a year when Europe and Asia were ablaze with war, but the United States would not enter the conflict until the last month of that year.
How did a York company get into wind turbines long before the phrase “green energy” was more than a passing thought?
“We would tackle just about anything,” says 85-year-old Edward Yanek, who was also an engineer for the company. At that time the business was on Lincoln Street, off Roosevelt Avenue.
The Grandpa Knobs wind turbine “was the only one they made,” Ed recalls.
The construction of a wind turbine was a natural outgrowth for S. Morgan Smith, which began manufacturing turbines for water mills and then expanded into water turbines to create electricity.
On its Web site, Noble Environmental Power says, “In 1941, the mountaintop known as Grandpa’s Knob in Rutland County, Vermont, made wind energy history: it was home to the world’s first megawatt-size wind turbine that successfully delivered power into an electric utility’s system.”
The wind system looked basically like an oil derrick with a two blade airplane propeller at the top. Behind the blade was the York-made turbine that would convert the wind to electricity.
The online source Wikipedia reports it was a 1.25-megawatt turbine. “It supplied energy to the New England power grid for a brief period during World War II, generating enough electricity to power about one thousand Vermont homes.”
The system worked for less than two years. What happened is not clear. While Wikipedia says “a main bearing failed,” another S. Morgan Smith alumnus – well-known industrial historian Howard Mayo, Jr. – says that an A-shaped brace attaching the blade to the shaft snapped “and the blade went sailing off across the mountain.” With the war raging, there was no spare material available to repair the system. What made the wind machine so unusual and the blades so expensive is that the huge blades could be flexed or coned during high winds, Howard noted.
By the end of the war, electricity produced by burning coal was cheaper than the wind system. “Nevertheless, the experiment at Grandpa’s Knob was a success in the sense that it demonstrated the feasibility of generating power from a large scale turbine that fed power to the local electrical grid,” Wikipedia states.
Howard Mayo, now 83, not only had his own employment ties to the S. Morgan Smith company, but his father was the New England sales manager for the firm and arranged for the Central Vermont Power Co. to take the electricity produced by the 110-foot high wind tower.
Howard even made a scale model, “streamlined version” of the tower, and that is now part of the Agricultural and Industrial Museum on West Princess Street.
And it’s taken the rest of the world only 70 years to catch up with a York concept.
Photo courtesy of York County Heritage Trust.