The Jacobs story begins in the early part of the 1900s with brothers Marcellus (1903-1985) and Joe Jacobs. After leaving Indiana in 1910, the Jacobs family moved to Montana and lived in Culbertson for two years before their father, Amos, moved the family to a small ranch southeast of Vida, MT.
It was here that Marcellus, or M.L. as he was commonly known, and Joe worked on improving the ranch to bring it up to modern standards at the time, including wiring it for electricity. By 1920 they had installed a Delco generator used to power devices such as electric lights, water pumps, irons and the coming high technology of the era: radios. The generator, constrained by gasoline for operation, proved troublesome to keep running. The nearest town was 40 miles away and refueling was less than practical (a 3 day round trip by wagon to fill gas cans). With few electric power lines in rural areas at this time, however, options were limited.
At this point the brothers looked to one of the most abundant resources on the open plains, the wind. The wind had traditionally been harnessed to grind grain and pump water, so why not use it to turn a generator and produce electricity. Their first attempt involved modifying a water pumping windmill to suit their needs. While this design had the power to turn a stone or a pump, it did not have the necessary speed to turn a generator fast enough to produce any viable electricity since the fan-bladed mills were not capable of higher speeds in stronger winds.
Marcellus Jacobs, a pioneering (and later an accomplished pilot), was in the process of learning to fly at this time and also with Joe using surplus WWI aircraft engines with propellers for snowmobile type sleds. Using his knowledge of aviation and airfoils, M.L. and Joe decided to put a propeller in place of the slower windmill fan. This change produced much better results. Through further field testing, they settled on a three blade design. This design helped to cut down on tower vibration as the rotor yawed.
The new blades allowed the generator to turn at a speed capable of generating sufficient electricity, but brought with them a new problem. Winds in the area were anything but forgiving and high speed gusts could prove disastrous for a machine so adept at catching their wild energy. A way to regulate the speed of the rotor in higher wind speeds was needed. The solution to this was the Jacobs fly-ball governor. Along with protecting the wind machine from harm, the governor also kept the rotor’s speed consistent in wind gusts allowing for more efficient electrical generation. M.L. and Joe never stopped refining their machines and continued to increase their efficiency and reliability.
The success of the Jacobs brothers homegrown engineering did not go unnoticed. Soon they were producing the “wind plants” for neighboring farms and ranches. During this time they produced a couple dozen such wind plants. The machines were rated at 1 kW and were used to charge batteries which then supplied power to lights, radios, appliances and the like. Their initial attempt to make their own lives easier had turned into a business when others wanted the same luxuries that electricity afforded.
The business was so successful, in fact, that people began investing in it when the Jacobs Wind Electric Company became incorporated in 1928. Though remaining small in size, they next looked to increasing production. This was a difficult task from their rural Montana location, so they moved to Minneapolis, Minnesota where they would be closer to parts suppliers. There they set up a factory in 1932.