Back in 1984 I was assessing agricultural land in southern Saskatchewan. This was the beginning of the era of “suitcase farming,” where operators left their rural homes and moved to nearby cities. My work often took me by these abandoned farmsteads. Passing one, I noticed a curious rusty metal box in a refuse pile. It turned out to be the electrical control box for a wind turbine. Previously I had worked for Saskatchewan’s short-lived Office of Energy Conservation, and wind-powered electric generation had been an area of interest. So I took the box home with me.
Long story short, the box subsequently gathered dust over the course of a couple of decades and a couple of moves, until a basement water leak meant I had to move a bunch of stored stuff. There it was, long forgotten but suddenly a very tangible artifact.
The control box is an integral part of the Jacobs Wind Electric Plant, Model 25, producing 40 watts of DC power. The Jacobs story actually starts in 1922, on an isolated farm in Vida, Montana. Just to orient you, Vida is south of Wolf Point, Montana, which is directly south of Assiniboia, Saskatchewan. Young Marcellus Jacobs and his brother Joe are playing around with primitive wind generator designs, hoping to provide some electric power to their farm home. (In the 1920’s, large American cities had electricity, but rural electrification for places like eastern Montana was still years away.) Marcellus had learned to fly, so they had access to two-bladed airplane propellers, but they soon discovered that a two-blade design created too much vibration, so they created a three-blade design, which went on to become the standard for wind electric generation.
Marcellus and Joe started a small factory in Vida, producing and selling wind turbines, towers, control boxes and storage batteries to farms in the area. Much of the demand came from the desire for access to radio programming. The Jacobs boys created a wonderful newspaper ad that showed their mother Ida ironing with an electric iron while she listened to the radio with a headset. The Jacobs company became quite successful and in the late 1920’s, they moved it to Minneapolis, to be closer to parts suppliers.
In the late 1930’s, rural electrification became a federal priority in the US, and interest in home-based windpower generation dropped off dramatically. However, this was not the case on the Canadian prairies, which had plenty of wind, and did not connect to the electrical grid until, in some cases, the 1950s. So literally hundreds of used Jacobs wind plants migrated from the American midwest to rural Canadian communities like Melita, Manitoba, Peebles, Saskatchewan, and Milk River, Alberta. Hence the origin of my rusty Jacobs control box.
The rediscovery of the control box in the basement prompted an exploration of an equally dusty file cabinet, for my old files on wind power. In the cabinet I found a 1985 letter addressed to me from Marcellus Jacobs, answering my request for more information on the company’s history. There is a fine line between personal archival discovery and forgetfulness.
The Jacobs plants did set the gold standard for wind electric generation. Not only did they innovate the three-blade design, Marcellus and Joe also solved two fundamental problems with wind turbines; controlling overspeeds in strong winds, and keeping internal bearings lubricated. Jacobs Wind Electric Company is the oldest renewable energy company in the US. Marcellus’ son Joe maintains a company website at https://www.jacobswind.net/