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Discover Science at the British Library


We are the British Library Science Team; we provide access to world-leading scientific information resources, manage UK DataCite and run science events and exhibitions. This blog highlights a variety of the activities we are involved with. Follow us on Twitter: @ScienceBL. Read more

11 August 2017

James Blyth and the world's first wind-powered generator

GREAT_for_Imagination_Social_post_ Wind Power

Today's GREATforImagination invention is the first ever wind-powered electrical generator, created by the Scottish engineer and physicist James Blyth (1839-1906). Blyth was the son of an innkeeper, but took advantage of a scholarship to gain a good education and an academic career. In 1887, while a professor at Anderson's College in Glasgow (an ancestor of the modern Strathclyde University), he constructed a windmill attached to a dynamo to light his cottage in his home village of Marykirk. He may have been inspired to use wind to generate electricity by negative comments on the subject by his fellow Glaswegian, the now more famous physicist William Thomson, later Lord Kelvin. He offered to allow his current to be used to light the main street of the village, but superstitious local residents reportedly considered the mysterious electric light to be "the work of the devil"!

Blyth patented his windmill design, which had a vertical axle and cup-like structures to catch the wind, as GB19401 of 1891. Unfortunately, this is not available free online, but you can read it here at the British Library if you have a reader pass. He argued in his patent that this design had aerodynamic effects that would prevent the mechanism from being damaged by overspeed in strong winds, although it was still vulnerable to damage from very powerful gusts.

Blyth turbine
Blyth's windmill design, from his patent (crown copyright)


Blyth subsequently constructed a larger wind generator to provide electricity to the Royal Asylum mental hospital at Montrose, which lasted until 1914. He strongly supported renewable power, although environmental science and pollution were little understood at the time. His main argument was that wind power was cheaper than fossil fuels.

As well as his work on wind power, Blyth was prescient in arguing that gas discharge lamps were more efficient in creating light than filament light bulbs, although the technology of the time was not really up to constructing useful ones. He also contributed to the development of microphones and telephones. The University of Strathclyde continues to be a significant centre in wind energy research.

Further reading:
Blyth, J. (1892) On the application of wind power to the production of electric currents, Proceedings of the Philosophical Society of Glasgow, 25th January, pp. 1-2
Price, T. J. (2005) James Blyth - Britain's first modern wind power pioneer, Wind Engineering, 29(3), pp. 191-200. Available online in BL Reading Rooms.

09 August 2017

Charles Parsons and the steam turbine

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Today's GREATforImagination patent is Sir Charles Parsons' invention of the modern steam turbine. In a steam turbine, expanding steam is used to drive a series of rotating vanes, similarly to wind mills. They are much more efficient than reciprocating steam engines such as railway locomotives. The patent, GB1735/1884, is too old to be freely available online, but you can see it if you have a Reader Pass and come to our Business & IP Centre.

Parsons was born in 1854 to an aristocratic Anglo-Irish family with a scientific tradition. His father, the third Earl of Rosse, was a notable astronomer who owned the largest telescope ever constructed in the nineteenth century, first identified the spiral shape of many galaxies, and named the Crab Nebula. Parsons studied maths at Cambridge and then worked as an engineer in Tyneside and Leeds.

He designed and patented his turbine in 1884, initially to generate electricity. Earlier turbines had been impractical and fragile due to their extremely high rotational speed, and Parsons' breakthrough was to design a system which could progressively draw the energy out of the steam in several stages of expansion, making it much slower, more controllable, and less likely to wear out or break under the strain. Parsons first licensed his patents to the Westinghouse company before setting up his own firm and works in Newcastle. Within Parsons' lifetime, turbines of the type he had developed were used to run generators in almost all heat-based electric power stations.

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Turbinia at speed in the North Sea. Photo by Alfred John West

In the 1890s he came up with the second major use for his turbines, as engines for propeller-driven steamships. This patent, GB11223/1897, is online. In a famous publicity stunt, Parsons built a small, turbine-powered steamship called the Turbinia, and gatecrashed the Royal Navy Review for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee at Spithead in her, literally running rings around the slower reciprocating-engine powered Navy boats that tried to intercept her. By 1905 the Navy had decided that all of its future ships would be turbine-driven.

Parsons continued to invent, in particular in electricity generation, ships, and glass manufacture. He died in 1931, aboard a steam turbine-powered ocean liner during a trip to Jamaica. His company, after a series of takeovers, is now part of Siemens.

27 July 2017

Geology of and in the British Library

Eric Robinson, consultant to Sir Colin Wilson, our architect, and a former University College London lecturer and urban geologist produced a free BL booklet several years ago entitled “A Geology of the British Library” in which he drew our attention to the beautiful geological and paleontological features of the stone, marble and building materials used on both the interior and exterior of the library building at St. Pancras.


A walk around the site or formal tour will offer the opportunity to look at the fascinating fossils and geological patterns visible in the marble, on the floors and in the public areas:

Key features and types of stone to be found, include:

  • New red sand stone from the Permian period around the piazza and main entrance gate.
  • Handmade red bricks that characterise the building and courtyard, are made from southern England clay, high in alumina and at high kiln temperatures with controlled oxygen to create the impressive red colour.
  • Fossilized sea sponges can be seen in the French Hauterville limestone located outside the conference centre.
  • Creamy white Portland stone squares contrast with the darker Purbeck limestone slabs that can be found on the upper ground floor around the reader registration entrance and 3D library model. This Purbeck limestone,  on closer examination, reveals dark fossilized bivalve sea shells and fresh water molluscs.
  • Antony Gormley’s Planets installation in the piazza, consisting of 8 similar sized rounded glacial boulders from Malmo, Southern Sweden, reflecting the impact of the ice ages on their surfaces over the last 2 million years.  

A PDF of Eric Robinson’s guide can be found on the UK Web Archive Organisation’s site at:

and whets our appetite for his other publications on London urban geology, readily found on our Explore the BL catalogue ( ) including Greenwich, Westminster, St. Paul’s, and the church yard tombstone trail around St. Mary’s Hornsey, London.

The following  canned search on the Explore catalogue below lists Eric Robinson's publication titles:

URL is;jsessionid=B22843284F239948080E1B85A236C223?fn=search&ct=search&initialSearch=true&mode=Basic&tab=local_tab&indx=1&dum=true&srt=rank&vid=BLVU1&frbg=&tb=t&vl%28freeText0%29=008796217+OR+008796200+OR+008796214++OR+013514925+OR+008796205+OR+008796204+&scp.scps=scope%3A%28BLCONTENT%29&vl%28488279563UI0%29=any&vl%28488279563UI0%29=title&vl%28488279563UI0%29=any


The British Library also houses a graduate and post graduate level science collection with current journals, books and conferences in geology on the third floor reading room plus research tools and e-resources such as the Georef, Web of Science, Scopus, Engineering Village  databases for keeping up to date with all aspects of this subject (reading room onsite access):

Whether you are a British Library member of staff, a registered reader or a visitor, both the building and it’s collections can be full of surprises and open to everyone to explore. 

Paul Allchin,

Reference specialist - science