Learn about Smith-Putnam wind turbine... Science

With the wind

The Smith-Putnam wind turbine was a failure in the end but it proved to be a unique experiment for large-scale wind turbine systems   | Photo Credit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ

When confronted with failure, there are two broad ways in which you can react, provided you are not giving up. You can either keep trying to push yourself towards success, or you can share the details of your failure so that success can be achieved in the future.

While we saw last week as to how Garrett Morgan strove towards success while fighting off racial prejudices, this week, we will look into how Palmer Cosslett Putnam provided invaluable data for the wind energy industry.

Putnam was an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)-trained geologist who did not have any formal education or experience in wind power. While windmills were employed to either pump water for farmers or charge batteries at a rural level, Putnam envisioned a wind turbine that generated megawatts of power that could be fed to the grid.

Can you name the place where the Smith-Putnam wind turbine stood? Send your answers to ganesh.a.s@thehindu.co.in with your name, class, school and location. [subject: eye]
Last week’s answer
Apart from the hair refiner and safety hood, Garrett Morgan was equally famous for inventing an early version of traffic signals. Karnika Vivek of Class 11, KV No. 1 Calicut, Kozhikode was among the first to get it correct. Congratulations!
For this, Putnam had to design a wind turbine with 75 foot blades, by far the largest in existence till then. It was also to work in tandem with a hydroelectric plant to even out the irregularities that might occur.

Putnam approached S. Morgan Smith Company with his designs in 1939. As manufacturers of hydraulic turbines who were looking to diversify. They backed Putnam’s daring design. And on October 19, the 1.5 megawatt generator fed AC power to the electric grid, the first wind machine to ever do so.


The fascinating aspect of Putnam’s design was that his turbine could be adjusted with the varying speeds of the wind to keep the generator speed synchronised with the line. The blades could also be coned, which meant that they could be angled forward or back to the turbine shaft in order to change their exposure to the wind, rather than remain perpendicular.

But wait. Wasn’t this supposed to be a tale that discussed Putnam’s failure?

Where did it fail?

The turbine went through hundreds of hours of testing up until 1943, when a bearing broke. With the war on, replacement had to wait till 1945 when it was up and running again. And then, it met its end.

On March 26, 1945, one of the blades broke away. Wartime shortages and cheaper electricity generated through fossil fuels meant that the will to continue was not adequate. The project was dropped.

While this might seem as a big blow to advocates of wind energy, what followed actually worked in favour of the industry. S. Morgan Smith Company assigned their patents to the public domain and Putnam wrote a book about his work, so that it could be continued.

The Smith-Putnam wind turbine thus proved to be a unique experiment for large-scale systems, providing data that not only saved money and time for subsequent researchers, but also reduced the risks involved in future big power-plant projects for wind energy.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2022 4:19:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/in-school/sh-science/1/article6522764.ece

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