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Trading wind

Everything changes, everything progresses…’

This Gem is a trade card, a business card for companies which would have been distributed to clients and potential customers to advertise their products, services and contact details.

This card was produced for the French wine company, Byrrh, probably during the 1930s. It was part of a series of trade cards called ‘Looking Ahead’, each of which showcased a different new or developing technology with a brief explanation of it on the reverse. The range of cards included farming, interplanetary planes and thermal energy.

This card displays a wind turbine, which was first invented in 1888 but was just starting to really develop and gain popularity by the 1930s, with the invention of the Darrieus wind turbine in 1931 which upgraded the conventional horizontal-axis wind turbine to a vertical axis, accepting wind from any direction with no need for adjustments, and allowing the heavy generator and gearbox equipment to rest on the ground instead of on top of a tower.

The gradual change from traditional windmills to modern wind turbines in generating power would have been at the forefront of the public psyche at this time, which is reflected in the concluding phrase on the reverse of the trade card:

“Everything changes, everything progresses…
Only Byrrh cannot improve because it is the perfection of cinchona tonic wines.”

Despite the same phrase being displayed on every trade card, and obviously being a way to humorously advertise the ‘perfection’ of Byrrh’s wine, this rather fatalistic yet also optimistic philosophy of everything changing and progressing is very reminiscent of the approach many people took to the industrialisation of milling, and the progression from traditional milling with wind and watermills to modern milling with roller mills and electronic machines.

The contrast between the poetic past in which windmills are often depicted, and this modern wind turbine is shown in the futuristic style of the painting, which may well have been influenced by the building popularity of sci-fi novels during the early 20th century, spurred on by new inventions in science and technology which were stoking people’s imaginations. Interestingly the turbine is given a similar design to the Eiffel Tower which had its own vertical wind turbines installed in 2015.

Byrrh was started in 1866 by the brothers Pallade and Simon Violet. The drink, a wine-based aperitif flavoured with cinchona, was originally marketed as a health tonic due to its inclusion of quinine, as well as to stop it competing with other established French Wines. Prohibition and changing French tax incentives almost killed off the brand, but in more recent times it has regained some of its former popularity, with exports to America restarting in 2012.

Gem from the Mildred Cookson Foundation Collection

Related links

  • Further Reading: Learn more about the technique that brought art to the masses and made making this trade card possible here.
  • Further Reading: Learn more about the history of trade cards here.
  • The Wing Major: Wind Turbines only really began to be taken seriously thirty years before this card. Find out more about how this happened here. 
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The Wing Major

‘It consists of a windmill, but one totally different in appearance and principle from all windmills known hitherto.’

This is a Ventimotor, designed by an Artillery Officer to save the German Milling Industry. It is a very early version of an electricity-producing wind turbine. Designed by Major Kurt Bilau, it makes use of principals from aeroplane design to produce greater centrifugal force, improving its efficiency and output. By placing the dynamo in the egg-shaped front of the turbine, he also minimised interference in airflow. When the sails of his Ventimotor were turned by the wind, in turn, they drove this dynamo which produced electricity.

Major Kurt Bilau was himself an interesting individual. Serving as an artillery officer for the German Army during World War I, he was awarded the Iron Cross. It is likely from his time in the army that his interest in windmills was peaked, as they were often used as observation posts and landmarks for targeting. Following the war he worked in Göttingen Aerodynamic Institute where a newspaper report in the Mirror 1924 states that “while working one day in his laboratory at Göttingen he saw in a flash that windmill construction had for thousands of years been all wrong”.

Bilau was concerned both with German post-war coal shortages and with the decline of traditional milling. His membership of the Prussian Officer Class had given him a paternal outlook, and he hoped that improvements in windmill design would improve output, thus guaranteeing livelihoods and traditional skills into the future. As such his sails were originally designed as modifications to windmills, whilst the Ventimotor itself was to provide an additional source of income to millers. His passion and tenacity for this pet project earnt him the nickname of ‘The Wing Major’.

An eccentric individual, alongside his sail designs Major Bilau also wrote and lectured on topics such as astrology and Atlantis.

Gem from the Mildred Cookson Foundation Collection

Related links

Trading Wind: New wind turbines such as this were treated with excitement and expectation. For many they were seen to herald the future of electricity production. See how this excitement was captured in advertising here.

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Napoleon’s folly

A supposed French invasion craft designed to cross the channel during the Napoleonic Wars.

In the late 1790s, Britain was gripped by the scare of an invasion by the infamous French warlord Napoleon Bonaparte. Over the channel he was amassing his forces; rumours of his conquests were rife and everyone knew he had set his sights on England as his next planned invasion. Indeed, a small French force even landed in Wales in 1797 (as part of a very brief and unsuccessful attempt at a diversion).

As it is wont to do (and was, even in the 18th century), the press took hold of the nation’s anxieties and began publishing satire about the supposed rafts full of military troops which would land on British soil. A variety of cartoons and reports were produced: the depicted rafts were all were impractically large and capable of carrying a very large number of soldiers, had some form of fortification in the middle and used wind-powered paddles as propulsion. These reports were all said to be supposedly from either ‘a prisoner of war’ or ‘a visitor recently from France’ to give them some form of credibility. The rafts quickly entered the public imagination and became a way of depicting the invasion threat in a comical manner, fuelled by Britain’s love of poking fun at the French (and perhaps also as a defiant stand against what must have been a very real and imposing threat). In the end, however, this invasion never came – Napoleon’s hopes dashed by Nelson at Trafalgar.

The Gem, an etching by Robert Dighton, was produced around 1798. Dighton was born in 1751 and entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1772, after which he set up as a drawing designer and miniature painter. He specialised in “dross”, caricatures of a more gentle nature than those by the likes of his main contemporaries, Gillray and Cruickshank.  Dighton was a particularly colourful character: as well as working as a caricaturist and performing on the West End stage, in 1806 he was caught for stealing prints from the British Museum and selling them on. It was quite a scandal, but luckily for him he avoided prosecution by fully cooperating with the investigation. Robert Dighton died in 1814, leaving behind his children who also became caricaturists.

Remarkably, whilst these depictions of rafts are clearly absurd, there have been some attempts at creating boats powered by windmills. Some are less direct and have used them to produce electricity which is then used to drive the underwater propeller; but others have been directly linked through a drive shaft to the propeller. Indeed, with growing concerns over the environmental impact of international shipping and with new designs such as the use of windmills, large kites and solid sails, we may yet see a ship that resembles Napoleon’s folly.

Gem from Wheeler, HFB and Broadley, AM, Napoleon and the Invasion of England: The Story of the Great Terror, John Lane, The Bodley Head, London, Volumes 1 & 2 (1907)

Related links

  • Further Reading: This cartoon is a piece of satire. You can learn more about this centuries old art form that stretches all the way back to the Ancient Greeks here.
  • Anglo-French Trade during the Napoleonic War: The archive has a folder of research papers showing that despite the invasion fleet trade did continue to cross the English Channel.