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Photos of Mehrkam Turbines by Paul Gipe

I knew Terry Mehrkam. I began my career writing about wind energy by writing about him and his wind turbines. Some of the earliest photographs I have of wind turbines were machines he was experimenting with in Hamburg, Pennsylvania, a village near Allentown.

I also wrote Terry’s obituary. I hope I never have to write another obituary about someone working on a wind turbine.

Terry was not an engineer. I am not sure what formal education Terry had. He was a welder and an experimenter and—like a lot of us—trying to find his way in the world by building things that people would use.

In the mid-1970s his inventiveness turned to wind turbines.

The first machine Terry developed was a two-blade, downwind machine on a concrete and lattice mast. Downwind machines were all the rage in those days. In fact, downwind designs were a hallmark of American wind turbines.

Subsequently, Terry developed a 40-foot diameter (12-meter), four-blade, downwind machine that he commercialized. He installed several in Pennsylvania and adjoining states.

Terry also developed a much larger, six-blade turbine that he installed at an amusement park near Allentown, Pennsylvania. (I wrote an article about this machine for Popular Science magazine.)

The turbines were very crude. I can say that now with experience. During the time Terry was selling his machines without any form of aerodynamic overspeed control, the Danes had already learned this fundamental lesson of wind turbine design—the hard way. Terry never learned this lesson—and it killed him.

At the American Wind Energy Association conference, possibly in 1979 or 1980, in Pittsburgh, Terry described to a shocked audience how he stopped a runaway turbine from destroying itself. While showing a photo of his turbine where the rotor was just a blur, he described throwing a rope through the rotor. (This was technique used by others during the frantic early 1980s of California’s wind rush.)

Later I’d heard that he’d stopped a runaway turbine in New York by straddling the nacelle and taking a crow bar and prying the disk calipers together. This rumor so frightened me that I met with him and asked if it was true. It was. He said not to worry he wore a safety rope around his waist!

In 1981, Terry was killed trying to stop a runway turbine on a wind farm in the desert to the east of San Diego, California. He left a wife and three children behind.

California's Department of Occupational Safety and Health (CalOSHA) concluded that Mehrkam climbed to the top of the tower without using any form of fall protection and either fell or was thrown off the tower to his death.

The Death of Terry Mehrkam

BOULEVARD, CA (UPI)--Terrence Mehrkam, 34, owner of a Hamburg, Penn., windmill manufacturing company, was struck and killed by the blade of one of his own windmills at a "wind farm" in this San Diego County community. The coroner's office said Mehrkam was struck by one of the blades after falling from a platform . . .


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