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  • Signs of Hubris : The Shaping of Wind Technology Styles in Germany, Denmark, and the United States, 1940–1990
  • Matthias Heymann (bio)

A huge body of scholarship in recent decades has convincingly demonstrated the contingent and contextual character of technological development. Technologies are shaped by social factors and thus “mirror our societies.” 1 Regional and national characteristics of technological developments can often be explained by their embedment in different cultures and environments. 2 To describe or explain technological differences, historians of technology have employed the loosely defined concept of “technological style,” which in recent years has received growing attention. 3 Drawing [End Page 641] extensively on this concept, John Staudenmaier has raised the possibility of a “link between technological style and national character.” 4

The development of wind technology from 1940 to 1990 in Germany, Denmark, and the United States does at first glance appear to corroborate Staudenmaier’s hypothesis. Wind technology in these countries differs in conspicuous ways. The renaissance of wind power technology in California and Denmark in the 1980s contained several notable surprises. California produced scores of unsuccessful turbine designs, poorly performing turbines, and disastrous turbine failures, especially when compared to the clearly superior Danish wind technology. The American failure looks even worse when one considers that between 1975 and 1988 the United States government spent twenty times (and Germany five times) as much for wind power research and development as did Denmark, yet Danish manufacturers made better turbines—have, indeed, since the early 1980s been the most successful wind turbine producers. Danish wind turbines supplied about 45 percent of the total worldwide wind turbine capacity in 1990. 5 Most U.S. manufacturers failed in the 1980s, and by 1990 only one major manufacturer of commercial turbines (US Windpower) remained. Producers from other countries had little impact on the total wind turbine capacity in the 1980s. 6

The failure of numerous turbine designs and the remarkable contrast between R&D expenditures and commercial success raise important questions. Why did so many designs fail? What made Danish turbines superior? How could small Danish companies outclass large American and German high-tech concerns? Forrest Stoddard, an American engineer, identified characteristic technical differences of Danish and American turbines that [End Page 642] he considered responsible for Danish success and American failures. 7 Peter Karnøe, a Danish political scientist, has explained the superiority of Danish wind turbines as a result of Danish manufacturers’ “bottom-up” strategy for development: a slow, crafts-oriented, step-by-step process including incremental learning through practical experience. This strategy, Karnøe argues, proved superior to the “top-down” approaches of science-oriented German and American researchers and manufacturers, which aimed at both quick and ambitious full-scale developments. Karnøe has shown that many striking wind turbine failures may be attributed to the disadvantages of top-down development. 8

Stoddard’s and Karnøe’s interpretations offer interesting explanations for the remarkable Danish success, but they do not answer all the questions posed. Why did the Danish bottom-up strategy prove more successful than American and German top-down approaches, and why did this strategy evolve in Denmark, and only there? Historical analysis shows that technical and conceptual differences in wind turbine development had important roots in the 1940s and 1950s. Individual and collective ideas and working styles can be attributed to individual actors and particular communities, both of which have characteristic patterns of knowledge, actions, and artifacts. These patterns may be called technological styles. The failure of a top-down approach to the development of wind technology reveals the limits of science-oriented technological development, or engineering science, and hints at technological hubris. 9 Big-science and high-tech approaches were in this case mistakenly considered powerful [End Page 643] enough to support gigantism, extreme technical sophistication, and immediate full-scale development.

Wind power’s long and rich history reached its zenith in industrializing western Europe and North America in the late nineteenth century. In the twentieth century the use of wind power declined, and thousands of windmills and wind turbines disappeared within a few decades. By the 1980s, however, oil crises, growing concern over environmental degradation, and nuclear-power protests were contributing to a...

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