Today, an engineer is a century ahead of his time.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
A hint of graininess warns
that this photo is a century old. The setting is a
spacious field with mansions in the background.
It's an upscale neighborhood in Cleveland, Ohio --
But the foreground! It looks like science fiction.
Sitting on a concrete pad is a giant windmill. The
40-ton tower that holds it is 60 feet tall. The
great wheel has 140 blades.
What can this be? Well, it's a domestic electric
generator. It's what many Americans only think
about making today, as fuel becomes more precious.
The builder was Charles Brush. Years before, he'd
given the valedictory address at Cleveland High
School. He spoke on "The Conservation of Force." In
that talk, he traced the sun's energy through plant
life, coal and oil, steam, power, and light. After
that, he'd gone on to study engineering.
By 1880 he'd become wealthy by creating an arc
lighting system for Cleveland. That was the very
modern form of electric lighting before Edison.
In the early 1880s Brush went back to the cycle of
energy from the sun. How do you best capture the
sun's energy and hold it? His answer was to take
energy from the wind and store it in electric
batteries. So he began work on this great windmill.
The huge slow-moving blades drove a 50-to-1 gear
train. It turned an electric dynamo. The dynamo, in
turn, fed 400 battery cells. They powered 350
incandescent lamps in Brush's mansion. They also
supplied various arc lights and electric motors.
It was hardly a system that John Q. Citizen would
go out to buy for his home. It didn't just take
more money than most of us see in a lifetime. It
also took Brush's enormous expertise to build and
But run it did. For 20 years it supplied power
flawlessly. Of course, toward the end, the city of
Cleveland was selling cheap electricity. Brush used
more and more public power until, in 1908, he quit
using the windmill. After that it fell into
disrepair and finally into ruin.
But, for a time, Brush had created visionary
high-technology in his back yard. He'd set up a
capital cost vs. running cost equation that we're
still trying to solve.
Maybe, one day, we shall learn to make cheap
generators and storage batteries. Maybe we shall
refine propellers to take more power from the
breezes. Maybe we'll yet have windmills in our back
yards. Maybe, one day, Brush will look down from
that great empyrean powerhouse in the sky and
smile. For everything that is old shall be new
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds