Charged by the Wind

Wind-powered battery chargers provided cheap energy before rural electricity

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Instead of the familiar "wheel" seen on water-pumping windmills, wind-powered battery chargers featured propeller-like blades. The blades drove the generator more efficiently than the wheel design.

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Eighty years ago, isolation was the bittersweet hallmark of rural life.

No telephones. No television. No e-mail. No electricity.

When the vacuum tube radio became affordable in the early 1920s, farm families suddenly had access to daily news and market reports — until the wet-cell batteries died. If the family was affluent enough to own a gas-powered generator, they simply recharged the batteries. Otherwise, just as suddenly, the silence returned.

Enter the wind-powered battery charger

With necessity acting as the mother of invention, the Wincharger was born in 1927. Developed by brothers John and Gerhard Albers on their farm in Cherokee, Iowa, the first Wincharger wind-powered battery charger was used to recharge a 6-volt storage battery for a vacuum tube radio.

The new source of free energy was an almost overnight commercial success, embraced by cash-strapped farm families who couldn't afford a backup battery. Before the Wincharger, when the radio’s battery was drained, it had to be hauled to town and left for a few days at an auto repair shop to be recharged by a gas-powered generator. The Wincharger changed all that.

With the affordable, propeller-driven Wincharger, the battery could be continually charged, with power left over. It didn’t take long for the average farmer to see the potential. Coupled with extension cables and proper wiring, lights suddenly illuminated the chicken coop, barn, kitchen and parlor. And that was just the beginning.

“The more affluent farmer had 32-volt appliances in his house, like refrigerators and vacuums,” says David Ballinger, a Wincharger collector from Burlington, Iowa. “Those were mostly powered by gas-powered units — Delco generators, for instance — but he needed a supplemental source.”

A strong demand

The fledgling Iowa company found a strong partner in 1935, when the Zenith Corp. purchased a controlling interest in the company. Zenith immediately implemented an aggressive advertising campaign, offering Zenith radio buyers steep discounts on 6-volt Winchargers. In 1937, Zenith Radio Corp. purchased the remaining shares of Wincharger stock. To provide additional lighting capacity, 12-, 32- and 110-volt generators were developed. Zenith continued with the Wincharger line until 1968.

In the 1930s and 1940s, particularly in the Midwest and on both coasts, wind-powered battery chargers were in hot demand. International markets also opened up. In Holland, for instance, Winchargers and similar, homemade devices were commonly used to generate electricity for home and farm use during the German occupation of World War II.

In Wincharger’s first 10 years, which included the Great Depression, the company sold 750,000 units worldwide. Other manufacturers were quick to follow Wincharger’s lead. Makers such as Aerodyne, Aircharger, Air Electric, Airlite, Air-Way, Allied, Hebco, Jacobs, Kelco, Nelson, Parris-Dunn, ParMark, Perkins, Ruralite, Universal, Wind Power, and Wind Wing were scattered across the country.

Death by electrification

With implementation of the Rural Electrification Act in 1936, however, the wind-powered battery charger’s days were numbered. Even the most remote farms had access to electricity by the mid-1950s, ending the need for the wind generator and a free energy source. Many utility companies refused to provide power to farms with working wind generators, and more than a few Winchargers were deliberately disabled by high-powered rifles.

Although the primary rural market for Winchargers dried up by the mid-1950s, 12-volt units targeted for use in extremely remote areas and Third World countries were produced until 1982. Wincharger (now operating under the name of Winco) remains in operation as a Minnesota-based manufacturer of home, construction and industrial generators.

Today, the wind-powered battery charger has nearly passed into obscurity. David Ballinger, though, is doing his part to spread the Wincharger story.

David created a display on a 16-foot trailer that he shows at the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion, Mt. Pleasant, Iowa (where three Winchargers belonging to the MOTR are on permanent display). He uses a Delco gas-powered light plant with one 8-volt and two 12-volt automotive batteries to run one unit.

David’s display includes seven different complete 6-volt Wincharger units, six of which are in running condition. Due to space limitations, David only demonstrates one of those units. It’s on a 10-foot stand, and is often used at shows as a power source for antique radios. He also displays 12 32-volt units, but they aren’t in running condition. “The 6-volt size is a handy size to store and work on,” David says.

Difficult to come by

Show-goers ask many questions about the curious devices, he says. “A lot of people don’t know what Winchargers are, or what they do,” David adds. He’s happy to fill them in, sharing information he’s amassed over the 20 years he’s collected Winchargers. Among the things he’s learned: Collecting Winchargers isn’t a hobby for the person who needs instant gratification.

“This is one of those collections where you have to be very patient,” David says. “It's only been in the last five years that I’ve started to do much with them. They’re pretty hard to find. You may only find a couple of pieces a year. There aren't very many people who collect these, and there are a lot of people who have just one.”

If that one Wincharger is complete, he adds, it’s a real prize. “It normally takes two buys to make one working unit,” David says. “When you do find one, everybody’s looking for the same parts. Everybody wants props and governors.”

Occasionally, David locates a Wincharger that’s been stored in a barn. “Those are the ones in the best shape,” he says. “If they’ve been left outside, they’re pretty pitted, pretty weathered.”

Restoration begins with sandblasting, followed by the search for parts. Sometimes David finds substitutes for small parts, and every now and then he encounters New Old Stock parts. Basically, parts are in such short supply that the collector needs a strong start. “You want to buy the units as complete as you can,” David suggests.

Each Wincharger unit came with a propeller, air-cooled generator, autotype brake and instrument panel. The storage battery for the Wincharger came in a variety of forms — everything from an automotive battery or two, to high-capacity cells enclosed in heavy glass jars.

The 6-volt Wincharger was typically roof-mounted atop a black, four-legged tower. The 32-volt Wincharger was sometimes roof-mounted, but generally stood on a galvanized, three-legged tower high enough (anywhere from 40 to 80 feet) to clear obstructions like trees or buildings. That tower came in 10- and 20-foot sections, with a 5-foot topper.

David plans to return with his collection to Mt. Pleasant for the next show, Sept. 2-6, 2004. He enjoys telling the Wincharger story, and the chance to meet with other collectors. He’s even gained a bit of a reputation at the popular farm show, he notes with pleasure. “Two years ago,” David says, “a guy came up to my exhibit, and asked ‘OK: Who’s the Wincharger nut?’” FC

Wincharger collection provides backup power

At least one Wincharger enthusiast is putting his collection to work. Gus Stangeland, Richardson, Texas, has two restored Winchargers erected in his back yard. One is a 6-volt unit, and the other is a 12-volt. Both are connected to batteries housed inside his shop. Power from the Winchargers is used to light yard lights.

He’s also installed underground, 12-volt wiring into his house, which provides backup power to operate a small television, radio, laptop computer and other small appliances. “If the main power goes down,” Gus says, “I have instant access to radio, TV and the Internet.”

Aside from practical concerns, the units themselves captivate Gus. “What I like about Winchargers is that they have a ‘life,’” he says. “As the wind comes up, they turn into the wind and start spinning. I can look out from my house and instantly tell the direction of the wind and also the strength of the wind. It’s just really fun to see these old units coming to life and working like they did some 70 years ago.” FC

For more information:
— Contact Gus Stangeland via his website:  www.wincharger.com .
— The Wincharger wind-powered battery generator website includes information on restoration, parts sources, vintage literature, related links and classified advertising:  www.wincharger.com .
— Vintage Windmills Online Magazine:
  www.vintagewindmills.com .
— American Wind Power Center and Museum:  www.windmill.com .
— Parris-Dunn wind-powered battery charger site:  www.geocities.com/jdd47 .