Green Energy at the turn of the 20th Century

R.W. Wilson and The Wind Mill Electric Company

When examining the history of inventors in Hamilton County, occasionally a long-forgotten figure will emerge.  One such person was Richard Walter Wilson, known as R. Walter or just R. W.  He was in born 1873 to a Quaker farm family near Westfield.  It’s not known where or if he got an education in mechanical engineering, although Union High School in Westfield was very highly rated. 

The Accumulator

In 1905, Wilson created a system to get steady electrical power from windmills.  A windmill, of course, does not run at the constant speed that’s required by a dynamo.  (Now we can use computers to deal with this.)  His system was mechanical and based on the flow of water pumped by a windmill into a water tank and then released at a steady pace.  There was also a back-up battery bank which would be steadily recharged.  A key part of the system was a device called an “accumulator” in the patent application and called a “regulator” in media reports.

The patent description for the accumulator says: “My invention relates to apparatus for storing energy and regulating its application, it being particularly adapted for use in connection with such motors of irregular speed such as windmills which are applied to the pumping of water.  Its principle objects are to provide automatic means for controlling the reception and delivery of energy by the accumulator and to generally improve the construction of apparatus of this class.”

There was extensive media coverage on this in newspapers and magazines.  The magazine Technical World said, “This simple harness, once put in operation, will virtually run itself, requiring little or no attention.  Mr. Wilson demonstrate the success of the invention at his own shop in Westfield, which is brightly lighted with wind-made electricity, and to all appearances it equals the steam-made product that city folk enjoy.” 

The magazine Our Day said, “There is no doubt that Mr. Wilson has solved the problem of a steady light, and that, with his invention, houses and barns supplied by it can be lighted for three or four days at a time even if there is a dead calm and the windmill does not make a single revolution.”

An article in Scientific American was a little more skeptical: “…Mr. R. W. Wilson of Noblesville, Ind., seems to have reached a successful solution of the question, at least as far as the requirements of his own home are concerned…”

Ahead of His Time

A company was formed in Noblesville in June 1906 called The Wind Mill Electric Company, (capital stock $20,000), for the purpose of manufacturing this system.  The company got a Canadian patent for the accumulator in October.  This was a good year for Wilson – he was married in September.

Evidently the company didn’t work out, however.   Nothing is heard about it after this and Wilson had moved to Los Angeles by 1910, where he lived for the rest of his life.  So, was it a technical failure of some kind?  Financial?  Marketing?  Or maybe like some tech start-ups today, he was too much ahead of the curve and there was not enough demand.  Whatever the reason, it’s an interesting early attempt at green energy.