The windwheel of Hero of Alexandria (10 AD – 70 AD) marks one of the first recorded instances of wind powering a machine in history.
The first known practical wind power plants were built in Sistan, an Eastern province of Persia (now Iran), from the 7th century. These "Panemone" were vertical axle windmills, which had long vertical drive shafts with rectangular blades. Made of six to twelve sails covered in reed matting or cloth material, these windmills were used to grind grain or draw up water, and were used in the gristmilling and sugarcane industries.
Wind power first appeared in Europe during the Middle Ages. The first historical records of their use in England date to the 11th or 12th centuries, there are reports of German crusaders taking their windmill-making skills to Syria around 1190.
By the 14th century, Dutch windmills were in use to drain areas of the Rhine delta.
Advanced wind turbines were described by croinventor Fausto Veranzio. In his book Machinae Novae (1595) he described vertical axis wind turbines with curved or V-shaped blades.
The first electricity-generating wind turbine was a battery charging machine installed in July 1887 by Scottish academic James Blyth to light his holiday home in Marykirk, Scotland.
Some months later American inventor Charles F. Brush was able to build the first automatically operated wind turbine after consulting local University professors and colleagues Jacob S. Gibbs and Brinsley Coleberd and successfully getting the blueprints peer-reviewed for electricity production in Cleveland, Ohio.
In Denmark by 1900, there were about 2500 windmills for mechanical loads such as pumps and mills, producing an estimated combined peak power of about 30 MW. The largest machines were on 24-meter (79 ft) towers with four-bladed 23-meter (75 ft) diameter rotors.
By 1908, there were 72 wind-driven electric generators operating in the United States from 5 kW to 25 kW. Around the time of World War I, American windmill makers were producing 100,000 farm windmills each year, mostly for water-pumping.
A forerunner of modern horizontal-axis wind generators was in service at Yalta, USSR in 1931. This was a 100 kW generator on a 30-meter (98 ft) tower, connected to the local 6.3 kV distribution system. It was reported to have an annual capacity factor of 32 percent, not much different from current wind machines.
In the autumn of 1941, the first megawatt-class wind turbine was synchronized to a utility grid in Vermont. The Smith–Putnam wind turbine only ran for 1,100 hours before suffering a critical failure. The unit was not repaired, because of a shortage of materials during the war.
The first utility grid-connected wind turbine to operate in the UK was built by John Brown & Company in 1951 in the Orkney Islands.
In the early 1970s, however, anti-nuclear protests in Denmark spurred artisan mechanics to develop microturbines of 22 kW.
Organizing owners into associations and co-operatives lead to the lobbying of the government and utilities and provided incentives for larger turbines throughout the 1980s.