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Tilting at Windmills. A Reading of a Wind Turbine By Charlotte Ebel. At the Teachers as Scholars Institute held at Princeton in 2005, Professor Michael S. Mahoney challenged the participants to engage in a process that he called “reading a machine.”. Introduction.

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Tilting at Windmills

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Tilting at windmills

Tilting at Windmills

A Reading of a Wind Turbine


Charlotte Ebel


  • At the Teachers as Scholars Institute held at Princeton in 2005, Professor Michael S. Mahoney challenged the participants to engage in a process that he called “reading a machine.”


Tilting at windmills

In the opening paragraph of his article by that name, he quoted the title of a paper presented by R.W. Hamming at the International Conference on the History of Computing in 1976: “We would know what they thought when they did it.”

What i thought when i did it

  • “That notion,” I could say, parroting Mahoney, “took some time to penetrate my literary instincts.”

What I Thought When I Did It

Tilting at windmills

  • It’s not that I feared objects. I have always been comfortable with them and collected far too many of them. I’m more mechanical than many women. I can change a tire, fix a vacuum cleaner or a washing machine, even open up the butterfly valve of my old Ford Mustang when it sticks. I am not afraid to tinker with my computer.

Tilting at windmills

But my literary instincts were so strong to overcome. My whole, long career has been explicating texts, parsing sentences, scanning poems, analyzing statutes, “mining” judicial opinions.

Tilting at windmills

Words are my nuts, bolts, transmissions, motors, governors, pulleys, ailerons, but when it comes to machines, my curiosity surpasses my ken. I suppose it would not be true curiosity if it were not so. What I mean is this is both my strength and my weakness.

Tilting at windmills

Mahoney goes on to elucidate in his article the point that the practice of science and the literature of science do not necessarily coincide. He avers that early in his career, he had “cast about for the primary sources of technology since the Renaissance,” a quest which he discontinued when he realized that “the great ideas we were seeking did not lie in books. They lay in objects.”

Choosing an object was my first task

Choosing an object was my first task.

Tilting at windmills

  • Having enjoyed a preview of the course, I had long thought about it and formulated the idea that I wanted to study the Lemieux brothers early work in film production. I later discarded the idea, thinking, because of the published title of the course, that we would be obliged to choose a scientist, inventor, or object more closely related to American history.

Tilting at windmills

  • I then thought of wind turbines since this alternative form of energy is a topic that has interested me for several years. And later, when the course had begun, a humorous aside by the professor planted the idea that I, a French teacher, might investigate the guillotine.

So many ideas so little time

So Many Ideas, So Little Time !

Tilting at windmills

  • I would choose the one for which materials were easily accessible, and eureka! The first trip to the library stacks produced what seemed to be just the right books to do the “reading” on the guillotine.

Tilting at windmills

  • They practically flew off the shelf into my hands with titles promising answers to the central questions of the exercise. As I perused them, the characters, the drama, the history, the moral issues came spilling out and flooded my mind with scenes that I knew well. I would undoubtedly glean some juicy details to take back to my French classes.

Tilting at windmills

  • However, as I thought of it in the context of the “machine readings” we had done in class, the guillotine seemed less interesting. Where would I find a model this side of France? It lacked the myriad “quotations” that even I could recognize in the wind turbine, but would I ever be able to attribute them all? And I had no model for the wind turbine either.

No model and yet i had experienced wind turbines

No model, and yet I had experienced wind turbines

Tilting at windmills

  • It was in the summer of 1988 when my family on the return leg of a cross-country trip rolled from the top of a hill into the valley of Altamont in California and there they were, like so any sentinels.

Tilting at windmills

We were awed by their height, enchanted by their grace, mesmerized by their sound – a whir, a whoosh, a blade cutting air, but not as its sharp severance by a sword, rather like a graceful diver cutting through the surface of the water.

Tilting at windmills

I thought of a line in a book I used to read the children, Gilberto and the Wind: “Who has seen the wind? Neither you nor I. But when the leaves blow down the street, the wind is passing by.”

Marie Hall Ets, Gilberto and the Wind

Tilting at windmills

No leaves on this treeless plain, but still one knew the wind was passing by from the rhythmical cosmic whisper of these turbines.

Tilting at windmills

We wanted to think then that it was the wind telling us of some magical future when the production of energy no longer polluted our atmosphere but instead gave us elegant machines that through their rhythmic gymnastics unfurled a stream of wind-borne electricity to power our lives.

Now in this course i ask myself how they came to be these turbines

Now in this course, I ask myself how they came to be, these turbines.

Their obvious antecedents were the windmills.

What did i know of them

What did I know of them?

Tilting at windmills

  • I thought about my childhood pinwheels.

My fascination with dutch windmills when i read hans brinker or the silver skates

my fascination with Dutch windmills when I read Hans Brinker, or the Silver Skates.

I thought about . . .

I thought about

  • dear old Daudet writing in his windmill in Provence.

I thought about . . .

I thought about1

  • Don Quixote

  • jousting with

  • Windmills.

I thought about . . .

That is what i thought when i did this that is

That is what I thought when I did this, that is …

Tilting at windmills

  • . . . when I tilted with windmills,

  • when I tried to “read” – from an image, no less –

  • a wind turbine, a modern windmill.

The reading

The Reading

Tilting at windmills

A wind turbine is an impressive structure.

Tilting at windmills

A typical height for a commercial turbine tower is about 230 feet.

There is a door in the base of the tower

  • The door allows access to an interior ladder.

  • One may ascend the tower from the inside to perform maintenance.

There is a door in the base of the tower.

At the top of the tower is the nacelle

  • It encases the engine.

  • It is about the size of a small school bus.

At the top of the tower is the nacelle.

On the front of the nacelle is the rotor

This model has three blades.

The blades are very smooth so that the wind may pass easily over them.

They are very strong so as not to break in the wind.

They are aerodynamic in design.

They are connected to a shaft that turns the dynamo inside the nacelle.

On the front of the nacelle is the rotor.

Here we see the enormous size and the aeronautical design of a rotor and blades

Here we see the enormous size and the aeronautical design of a rotor and blades.

Tilting at windmills

The blades are routinely washed to keep them clean. Any cracks are filled to keep them smooth.

Let s look inside the nacelle

Let’s look inside the nacelle.

What s happening

The blades scoop up the wind and use its power to turn the gears.

The gears make the high speed shaft turn approx. 50x faster than the low-speed shaft.

The high-speed shaft turns the dynamo to produce electricity.

If the wind speed becomes too fast, the controller computer shuts down the turbine.

A cooling mechanism keeps the generator from overheating while it is working so fast.

The yaw mechanism orients the rotor to the wind.

What’s happening?

This model turbine is very expensive and complex

This model turbine is very expensive and complex.

It is intended for use by a commercial supplier, such as an electric company. It is part of a system.

These large installations are called wind farms

These large installations are called wind farms.

Notice that the wind turbines in this picture have lattice towers.

Tilting at windmills

  • The turbines connect to a grid that will transmit the electricity to the consumer.

Tilting at windmills

  • These high lines are part of the delivery system.

Tilting at windmills

A 1,500-watt wind turbine provides this home in Colorado with electricity. Credit: Jim Green

Some of the documents on this page are available as Adobe Acrobat PDFs.Download Acrobat Reader

Some consumers, especially in remote locations, install small wind turbines to serve their residence individually.

Tilting at windmills

Environmental Concerns

  • Birds

  • Noise

  • Visual

  • Climate

  • Land Use

Where s wind energy going

Where’s wind energy going?



On reading a machine

Tilting at windmills

This project has undergone numerous transmogrifications during the two weeks of the Teachers as Scholars Seminar. Each day Aeolus seemed to release research winds from a different direction. I sometimes doubted the ability of my brain to yaw sufficiently in the right direction.

Tilting at windmills

On the last day of class before presentations, two remarks collided with a scene I had observed on the previous day’s field trip to the National Museum of History and created a spark that illuminated a creed I have long held.

Tilting at windmills

The first remark occurred when we were discussing the history of the computer. After detailing how memory systems were created, the professor commented that this mimicked some human brain functions, and he quoted Chomsky on the mysteries of language learning and the many cognitive secrets that lie embedded in our universal grammar. He concluded by observing thatthe human brain is

Tilting at windmills

the greatest machine of all.

The field trip to the National Museum of History intervened between the first and second remark. We were looking at an early machine. Someone identified a piston. Another remarked how the heavy leather belt moved from one wheel to another to shift gears. The professor stitched together our random

Tilting at windmills

observations on mechanisms and purpose, explaining the full operation of the machine . . ., but I was having trouble focusing on the discussion. My attention was diverted to “reading the machine” I saw in the top, back corner of the exhibit area: a video camera, its red, glowing eye trained on the spectator positions where we were standing.

Tilting at windmills

The second remark had a touching wistfulness. It grew out of a discussion between the professor and a student, a continuation actually, of our attention to the question of why women are not more successful as computer programmers. The comments were touching on interrupted careers, day care, maternity/paternity leave. It’s too bad,

Tilting at windmills

said the professor, and I paraphrase, that we haven’t been more creative, more successful at solving this problem in a way that is fair to all, because, after all, raising our children is probably the most important thing many of us ever do. These molecules of conversation kept bonding together as I sat for a while after class on a bench outside.

Tilting at windmills

Human brain = greatest machine

I wanted to stand before you today and say, “Here is my machine. Read it.” I thought of this together with the statement from Marx that the professor likes to quote to the effect that when the new first appears, it appears in the guise of the old. When one grasps what is new it takes a form more appropriate to it.

Tilting at windmills

Our children are like us until they realize what is new and unique about themselves and then many of our traits – and one hopes the bad ones – disappear. Are we able to read what is new and improved about each one’s machine?

Tilting at windmills

We have all of us often asserted in class that we will never afterwards look at objects the same. We shall always be analyzing, probing, touching them and asking: For what purpose are they made? Who is the intended user? But just as I shall be reading machines, I shall also look at my fellow man and woman, especially

Tilting at windmills

my students, analytically, searchingly, trying to read each “machine”, and I shall, through my actions, forever be imploring the parents of the children entrusted to me: “Read my machine at work. Observe all its moving parts. See how I am forever shifting gears, turning dynamos, transmitting energy to light up what is unique and glorious in this child.” After all, it’s our most important work!

Tilting at windmills

Mais, si tu m’apprivoises, nous aurons besoin l’un de l’autre. Tu seras pour moi unique au monde. Je serai pour toi unique au monde…St. Exupery,Le Petit Prince (45)

Tilting at windmills

The following are links to some excellent sites for teachers and students:



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