The world's first megawatt-size wind turbine

Oct. 19, 1941: Electric Turbines Get First Wind


The American windmill, as it was called, was simple and Western and rugged. Its shape hardly changed after key 1880s experiments by Thomas Perry resulted in the founding of the Aermotor company, which dominated the industry thereafter.

But that’s not the kind of turbine that Putnam had in mind. After looking into the designs of the past, he immediately decided that the economics of scale dictated that he build a wind turbine with 75-foot blades, the largest in the world. It would generate more than a megawatt of power and feed it on to the grid, working in tandem with a hydroelectric plant to even out the intermittency of the wind and the seasonality of water generation.

No one had ever pulled off that balancing act before, and most people working in the wind industry were probably too sane to try.

It’s important to understand how ridiculously grand the project really was. Its scale — 10 times as powerful as the very largest turbine and a thousand times more powerful than most of them — was almost unimaginable.


“Vermont’s mountain winds were harnessed last week to generate electricity for its homes and factories,” read the Sept. 8, 1941, issue of Time, jumping the gun a bit. “Slowly, like the movements of an awakening giant, two stainless-steel vanes — the size and shape of a bomber’s wings — began to rotate.”

The turbine ran through hundreds of hours of testing up to 1943, often pumping power onto the Central Vermont Public Service Corporation’s electrical grid. The project’s engineers were sure that, technically, the machine worked.

The Smith-Putnam wind turbine stood as a testament to the power of human — and American — ingenuity. A decade before, Soviet engineers had built the world’s largest wind turbine, a 100-kilowatt machine. Now the Yanks had constructed their own, 10 times more powerful.

Time concluded its article on the project with a hopeful half-prediction, “New England ranges may someday rival Holland as a land of windmills.” This was, after all, merely the prototype for whole lines of turbines that would be more resistant to German bombs than a centralized coal plant.


At exactly 3:10 a.m. on March 26, 1945, after more than 1,100 hours of operation, the Smith-Putnam turbine experienced an epic failure. One of the turbine’s blades broke clean off and went sailing 750 feet through the night.

Comment: Wiki article. Interesting articles.

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