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Texas | Columns

"Hindsights" by Michael Barr

Looking back at
Wind Chargers

Michael Barr
Have you ever watched one of those rigs, hauling a 200 foot wind turbine blade, negotiate a tight corner? It's like watching workmen carry a telephone pole through a trailer house.

Wind turbines, rising up from the barren West Texas plains like Don Quixote's windmills, are symbols of the 21st Century, but the technology is not new. The wind has been generating power in West Texas for a hundred years.
Frederickburg TX - Wind Charger
Wind charger near Frederickburg TX
Photo by Michael Barr, February 2017
When it came to electrification, West Texas lagged behind the rest of the country. It was not cost effective to put up poles and string wire through the sparsely settled country west of the Colorado River. Eastern cities were electrified before the turn of the 20th Century, but many rural West Texans squinted in dim candlelight for another 50 years.

Meanwhile some clever West Texans decided to generate their own electricity by harnessing the wind. A homemade wind charger used a wooden airplane-type propeller. When the wind blew, the propeller turned a generator pulled from an old car. The generator produced electricity and charged car batteries, wired in parallel, to be used when the wind was quiet.

The early wind chargers powered all kinds of equipment and gadgets including water pumps and electric lights.

But wind chargers were little more than curiosities until vacuum tube radios hit the market in the 1920s. The radio brought music and laughter to a hushed world, and anyone who heard it was hooked. Every family wanted a radio and made plans to get one.

The problem for rural listeners was that early radios had rechargeable batteries. When the battery went down, the owner had to take it to the gas station in town for a recharge.

Of course families with wind chargers didn't have that problem. For rural West Texans, the radio and the wind charger were made for each other.

As demand for radios soared, companies hoping to sell radios to rural customers began manufacturing wind chargers to power them. Perhaps the most popular commercial wind charger was the Wizard sold by Western Auto Stores. Zenith also made wind chargers.
Radio wind charger ad, Paris News 1938
An ad from The Paris (Texas) News, February 20, 1938.

Some companies sold radios and wind chargers as a set. Crosley Radio Corporation manufactured and sold a wind charger and a battery set for $20. For another $30, the company threw in a radio. Once you purchased the radio, the wind charger and the battery, the only cost was adding distilled water to the battery and oiling the generator. A year's worth of distilled water cost 50 cents.

By 1930 the wind charger business was booming. It even grew during the Great Depression. By 1935 one million American homes produced their own electrical power.

For the first time farm and ranch families had access to daily news, market and weather reports and nightly entertainment. Each evening isolated areas of rural West Texas came alive with sparkling lights and the sound of music.

Young and old crowded around the radio to hear "Fibber McGee and Molly" and "Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy." They listened to orchestral music and boxing matches.

I knew a man who thought the most exciting sound he ever heard was a thud. It was the sound of the latest Joe Louis opponent hitting the canvas. In deeply segregated America my white friend didn't know, or care, that Joe Louis, his hero, was Black.

Of course the wind wasn't a consistent power source. If the fickle wind blew, the lights came on and the radio played. If the wind didn't blow, everyone went to bed early.

And no one thought it sacrilegious to pray for a stiff wind on Saturday night so the family could listen to "The Lone Ranger" or the "Grand Ole Opry" in Nashville, Tennessee.

The demise of wind chargers began in 1935 when New Dealers in Washington created the Rural Electrification Administration. The REA provided West Texas with cheap reliable electricity - whether the wind blew or not.

By the end of World War II, most of rural Texas was wired for electricity. Wind chargers were no longer in demand.

Now wind chargers are making a comeback.


Michael Barr
"Hindsights"
February 15 , 2017 Column

Sources:
Amarillo Globe-News, July 10, 2006, "Wind Chargers more than just a power source," p3B.
Farm Collector, "Charged by the Wind," June 2004.


Windmills

Related Topics:
Windmills in Texas

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