No dark satanic mills

Image: Modern wind farm.

In 2005, an article in New Scientist magazine asked the question "What if electric generators and motors had been on hand before the industrial revolution began?" The article is by Bowdoin Van Riper, a professor of history at the Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Georgia, who specializes in the history of science and technology. If you have a subscription at the New Scientist website you can read the article online.

Bowdoin Van Riper imagines an alternate timeline in which the first electric motors arrived on the scene sometime in the 1740s. At that time the still new steam engine was used only in a few niche applications like mine drainage. In contrast to steam engines, electric motors are compact, quiet, and can work for days on end without the need for fuel, water or rest. Early steam engines had none of those virtues and were more costly and complicated to build. Consequently, electric motors would have been adopted more quickly than steam.

The rotating shafts of electric motors would have been ideal for the textile industry -- driving spinning wheels, yarn winders and knitting machines. They would also have been used for rope twisting, cabinet makers' drills, potters' wheels and as a power source for blacksmiths' bellows. Waterwheels and windmills were already at hand to drive the generators. With new gear ratios, a single generating mill could have served many nearby workshops.

In 1748, Benjamin Franklin coined the term "battery" to describe an array of glass plates which stored an electrical charge. If electric motors had already been introduced there would have been a great inventive surge in battery development. But with steam as the major power source reliable batteries didn't arrive until the late 1800s.

The steam-driven industrial revolution that actually took place emphasised centralization. To use big, expensive, fuel-hungry steam engines efficiently it became necessary to build large factories. An electrically driven industrial revolution would have allowed decentralized production. Large factories would doubtless have followed, but they would have been an option rather than a necessity.

The modern electricity distribution system imitates the early distribution network for gas derived from coal. In an electrically-driven industrial revolution countryside residents would have opted for self-sufficiency, while cities could have relied on small, localized power grids. Without gas mains under the streets cities would have been less prone to burn in the event of catastrophic damage -- as San Francisco did after the 1906 earthquake.

If reliable batteries had been available sooner, electric automobiles might have become commonplace before the invention of the first practical four-stroke internal combustion engine by Nicolaus Otto in 1876. Commercial electric tram services using steam-generated electricity first appeared in the 1880s.

Hybrid electric cars are currently available, and in 2004, The Times newspaper reported that compressed air motors are a viable option for lightweight city vehicles, although an energy source is required to power compressors to refill the air tanks.

An ancient windmill in Santorini, Greece:

Image: Ancient windmill in Santorini, Greece.

Links:

  • PESWiki - The Power Energy Systems Wiki is a comprehensive encyclopedia of alternative energy systems. It was originally proposed as a special section in Wikipedia.
  • yes2wind.com/locator - Interactive map of wind farms in the United Kingdom.
Article date : 8/09/2006 | Home >>