1839 – 1906
Electrical engineer who designed the world's first device by which electricity was generated from wind power.
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.
1839 Born on 4 April in Marykirk, Kincardineshire (now Aberdeenshire), the son of John Blyth, innkeeper and crofter and Catherine Grant
1856 Age: 17 Won scholarship to General Assembly Normal School, Edinburgh
1858 Age: 19 Teacher of mathematics and classics at Claverton Lodge, near Bath
1859 Age: 20 Matriculated at the University of Edinburgh studying mathematics and natural philosophy
1861 Age: 22 Graduated Bachelor of Arts from the University of Edinburgh
1862 Age: 23 Teacher of mathematics at Morison's Academy, Crieff
1870 Age: 31 Teacher at George Watson's College, Edinburgh
1871 Age: 32 Graduated Master of Arts from the University of Edinburgh
1871 Age: 32 Married Jessie Wilhelmina Taylor on 28 July 1871 at the United Presbyterian Church, Atholl Place, Edinburgh
1880 Age: 41 Appointed Freeland Professor of Natural Philosophy at Anderson's College, Glasgow (a predecessor of Strathclyde University)
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
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.
1891 Age: 52 Patented his “wind engine” under patent number GB19401. Applied for 10 November, accepted 12 December.
1895 Age: 56 Licensed Mavor and Coulson, engineers, to install a wind turbine at Montrose Asylum
1900 Age: 61 Honorary Doctorate from the University of Glasgow
1906 Age: 67 Died on 15 May at 170 Great Western Road, Glasgow and buried in Marykirk, Kincardineshire
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
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.