James Blyth's Wind Turbine for his home in Marykirk, Kincardineshire photographed in 1891

James Blyth's Wind Turbine for his home in Marykirk, Kincardineshire photographed in 1891

James Blyth

1839 – 1906

James Blyth

Electrical engineer who designed the world's first device by which electricity was generated from wind power.

Engineering Achievements

After experimenting with windmills James Blyth made his breakthrough in July 1887 when his cloth-sailed wind turbine in the garden of Blyth House in Marykirk  was used to charge accumulators.  The turbine produced enough power to light ten 25-volt bulbs in a "moderate breeze" and could be used to power a small lathe. This cloth-sailed, horizontal wind turbine is the world's first-known structure for the generation of electricity from wind power. It is described as being of tripod design, with a 33 foot windshaft, four arms of 13 feet with canvas sails, and a Burgin dynamo driven from the flywheel using a rope.

In 1895 he licensed the Glasgow engineering company, Mavor and Coulson, to build a second, improved turbine, which was used to supply emergency power to the Psychiatric Hospital of Montrose. The system operated successfully for the next 20 years.

Blyth's other research interests included the relative efficiency of different forms of lighting, telephone communication, and microphones; he also contributed entries on a number of topics for the ninth edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica.

His Life

  1. 1839 Born on 4 April in Marykirk, Kincardineshire (now Aberdeenshire), the son of John Blyth, innkeeper and crofter and Catherine Grant
  2. 1856 Age: 17 Won scholarship to General Assembly Normal School, Edinburgh
  3. 1858 Age: 19 Teacher of mathematics and classics at Claverton Lodge, near Bath
  4. 1859 Age: 20 Matriculated at the University of Edinburgh studying mathematics and natural philosophy
  5. 1861 Age: 22 Graduated Bachelor of Arts from the University of Edinburgh
  6. 1862 Age: 23 Teacher of mathematics at Morison's Academy, Crieff
  7. 1870 Age: 31 Teacher at George Watson's College, Edinburgh
  8. 1871 Age: 32 Graduated Master of Arts from the University of Edinburgh
  9. 1871 Age: 32 Married Jessie Wilhelmina Taylor on 28 July 1871 at the United Presbyterian Church, Atholl Place, Edinburgh
  10. 1880 Age: 41 Appointed Freeland Professor of Natural Philosophy at Anderson's College, Glasgow (a predecessor of Strathclyde University)
  11. 1886 Age: 47 Whilst teaching at the technical college he pursued an active research programme with a particular interest in the generation and storage of electricity from wind power
  12. 1887 Age: 48 In July, he built a cloth-sailed wind turbine in the garden of his cottage in Marykirk, the first house in the world to be powered by wind-generated electricity. The system was in operation for 25 years.
  13. 1891 Age: 52 Patented his “wind engine” under patent number GB19401. Applied for 10 November, accepted 12 December.
  14. 1895 Age: 56 Licensed Mavor and Coulson, engineers, to install a wind turbine at Montrose Asylum
  15. 1900 Age: 61 Honorary Doctorate from the University of Glasgow
  16. 1906 Age: 67 Died on 15 May at 170 Great Western Road, Glasgow and buried in Marykirk, Kincardineshire

His Legacy

Harnessing electric power from the wind for the first time in the world (predating the work of the American engineer, Charles Brush by several months) is a pioneering legacy well ahead of its time. Britain's first public utility turbine began operation at Costa Head, Orkney, in 1951—sixty-four years after Blyth's original demonstration that electricity could be generated from wind. 

His other legacies are the students he taught:
"His students – gone forth from the classroom, and radiated over the country and to far corners of the world... all bear in the secret structure of their minds the impress of Professor Blyth's teaching, and will cherish through life, with reverence and affection, the memory of their teacher and friend" Obituary – Professor James Muir

More Information

Blyth, J. (1888) On the application of wind power to the generation and storage of electricity, paper read before the Philosophical Society of Glasgow, 2 May 1888, University of Strathclyde library, Glasgow, GB 249 OM/17/9

Blyth, J. (1894) On the application of wind power to the production of electrical currents, Paper read on 25 January 1892 to the Royal Scottish Society of Arts, Transactions 13, pp170–81

Price, T. J. (2005) James Blyth: Britain's first modern wind power pioneer, Wind Engineering, 29/3, pp191–200

ODNB biography https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/100957 (free to UK library members. Accessed 7 November 2021)

James Blyth in Strathclyde University Archives

Papers of James Blyth Strathclyde UniversityArchives

Blyth House in Marykirk is on Aberdeenshire's Historic Environment Record.

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