Poul la Cour, Danish Inventor, Teacher, and Windmill Pioneer
The story of Poul la Cour and his contributions to Danish society is as powerful and pervasive as the wind that he harnessed in his native Denmark. The scientist, inventor, and educator is especially noted for his early work on wind power which laid the foundation for modern windmill technology and wind power plants in Denmark and the world.
Poul la Cour Helps Create the Danish Meteorological Institute
Born on April 13, 1846, in the city of Arhus, Poul la Cour grew up on a farm in Djursland. He learned the latest farming technologies from his progressive father, and he discovered that he had inherited his mother’s mathematical genius. Poul received a failing grade in Greek, but an A + in mathematics at his Latin school so he abandoned his early ambition to become a priest. His older brother Jorgen soon directed him into the new field of meteorology.
In 1869, Poul sat for his examination in Copenhagen for a master’s degree in the new science of meteorology and won a silver medal for his thesis on the height of connecting cloud layers He traveled all over Europe studying practical meteorology, and spent a month with the Dutch meteorologist de Buijs Ballot. He set up a meteorological institute in Denmark based on the principles of de Buijs Ballot and he helped found the Danish Meteorological Institute in 1872. As Deputy Director of the Institute, he established weather stations around Denmark.
The Danish Edison Equals the American Edison
While Poul la Cour performed his job as deputy director at the Danish Meteorological Institute, he also worked on his inventions. Smooth operations in meteorology depended on fast telegraphic communication over long distances so Poul developed a way to allow several operators to use the same wire at the same time.
His other inventions included pioneering advances in windmill technology, artificial fertilizer, and a hydrogen lamp that lit the rooms of the Askov School for years. Despite his many inventions, Poul la Cour didn’t become a wealthy man because he focused on benefitting the rural population. Often he sold his patents outside of Denmark for little money and on the condition that the invention could be freely produced and sold in Denmark.
Poul la Cour Marries and Teaches at the Askov Folk High School
As a student in Copenhagen, Poul had visited his uncle Frederik Barfod every week and became acquainted with minister and educator N.F.S. Grundtvig and regularly attended his services at his church in Vartov. Grundtvig’s educational philosophy included educating adults for productive and satisfying employment and “a cheerful, simple active life on earth.”
Poul became even more emotionally involved with the movement when he married his uncle’s adopted daughter, Hulda Barfod who followed Grundtvig. His marriage and commitment to Grundtvig drastically changed his life. In 1878, he began teaching at Askov Folk High School where he pioneered holistic teaching methods of teaching gymnastics and biology.
He wrote two classical textbooks, Historisk Mathematik in 1881 and Historisk Fysik, in 1896.
Poul la Cour Establishes an Experimental Windmill at Askov
In the 1890s, Poul la Cour and the Askov Folk High School focused more on material reality in teaching and in daily life. Poul once again took up inventing. Since wind was plentiful in Denmark, Poul felt that wind should be harnessed to produce electricity in Denmark. Holland had investigated using windmills to generate electricity, but rejected the idea because of their low efficiency and energy storing problems.
These drawbacks challenged the inventor and physicist in Poul and in 1891, he came up with the idea of using electrolysis and storing wind as hydrogen and oxygen energy. The Danish government supported him financially and the first experimental windmill was built at Askov in the summer of 1891. Poul solved the problem of producing a steady supply of power by inventing the Kratostate, a regulator that came to be widely used in electricity producing windmills in the Scandinavian countries and Germany.
Since Poul La Cour’s Askov windmill resembled a traditional Dutch windmill, many people criticized his work. The Danish government reduced its support in 1902, but by then, Poul had finished and published most of his experimental work. He transformed his windmill in Askov into a prototype electrical power plant and by 1895, the village of Askov was lighted by wind energy. In 1897, Poul built a new and bigger experimental mill in the “Dutch” style just like the old one.
In 1903 Poul founded the Danish Wind Electricity Society and published a bimonthly journal about wind electricity. He also trained at least 20 electricians a year at Askov where they learned windmill theory, maintenance and development.
Poul’s Windmill Work Continues
Poul’s windmill work continued after his death in 1908 and by the 20th century about 35,000 wind engines were registered on Danish farms and about 2,000 grain mills. These mills shaped the Danish landscape and validated Poul’s idea of small farms forming unique decentralized electrification in Denmark.
The Askov mill worked until 1968 when the Danish farmers stopped maintaining the iron constructions of the windmills and pulled many of them down. Over the next 50 years windmill use dwindled to small scale, local operations. Contradicting Poul la Cour’s philosophy, large coal burning electrical plants multiplied and converting to alternating current stopped the spread of windmill power across Denmark.
Then in the late 20th century, a new windmill generation constructed of improved materials and built on enhanced aerodynamic principles, sprang up across Denmark and the world. The wind again has been harnessed as a renewable resource, and Poul la Cour’s inventions and ideas are as fresh as a gust of strong wind.
Poul la Cour firmly believed that windmills on Danish farms not only would harness the wind to produce electric power, but they served an important social purpose as well. He didn’t want giant business corporations to monopolize the production of power. He felt that small local communities and individual farms could produce power more efficiently and cheaply. From the time he built his first experimental windmill at Askov in 1891 until his death in 1908, Poul la Cour worked to establish windmills as the focal means of harnessing wind to generate electricity in rural Denmark.
By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, most of the large farms in Denmark featured a “wind engine” or “Klapsejler”, which is a windmill with the blades made up of a system of adjustable, narrow, horizontal wooden slabs. The windmills used the wind to deliver energy to grind, thresh, pump water and produce electricity. This electricity provided modern conveniences that until this time could only be found in the cities.
According to folk high school professor Richard Andersen, the landscape of Jutland about 50 years ago featured many windmills on farms and the farms were self sufficient in electricity. (H.C.. Hansen: Forsogsmollen I Askov, 1981) He said that 35,000 “wind engines” were registered on Danish farms as well as 2,000 grain mills and he noted that windmills were as much a part of the classic Danish landscape as the classic Dutch landscape.
After World War II, most people, including the Danes, looked to the power station to produce electric power, the gasoline engine to propel vehicles, and to the wind to fill sails or to stop blowing. Johannes Juul, a student from the Askov National School, disagreed with the windmill is dead attitude. In 1951, he experimented with two and three bladed windmills and generators for alternating current and in 1957, his research and ideas produced a successful experimental windmill. His windmill was reliable and efficient and stayed in continuous operation until 1968.
During the 1960s, farmers stopped maintaining the iron constructions of the windmills and tore them down. The Askov Mill lasted until 1968.
Just as Poul la Cour’s research and ideas provided a foundation for the modern windmill, Johannes Juul’s principles of construction were the experimental point of departure for pioneering windmill work in the 1970s.
The 1973 energy crisis escalated the debate about using nuclear power in Denmark as opposed to alternative energy sources like sun and wind. The energy crisis highlighted two energy movements. A movement from above originated from government and legislator initiatives, helped by research at the atomic power experimental station Riso and the big central power stations.
A movement from below was rooted in a public awareness of energy and the environment and during the last half of the 1970s, companies and communities experimented withwindmills, especially those in Central and Western Jutland. Around 1978, the first 2 MW windmill was manufactured commercially and during the 1980s windmills with a distinctively “Danish design” redotted the Danish landscape.
The goal of the Danish energy plan had been 1,500 MW by 2005 and in 2002, wind power already represented a total capacity of almost 3,000 MW, including offshore wind energy. Also, in 2002, nearly 20 percent of Denmark’s electricity consumption came from wind energy with a higher proportion west of the Great Belt that divides Denmark into two separate electricity systems with no connecting cables. In the western part of Denmark, independent power producers deliver 60 percent of electricity needs, replacing coal power from central utilities. This figure has been achieved in less than ten years.
Poul la Cour’s dream is still blowing in the wind.
Gipe, Paul, Wind Energy Comes of Age, John Wiley & Sons, 1995
La Cour, Paul Foundation, Wind Power the Danish Way, From Paul la Cour to Modern Wind Turbines, 2010
Stenkjaer, Nicolaj, Poul la Cour – the Danish Wind Turbine Pioneer, Nordic Folkcenter for Renewable Energy, 2009
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