Solar Energy History

Solar energy history extends a long way back.

Man’s use of solar energy is not a trend that started only in the last 50 years. Nor is it something that a few hippy scientists thought of to fight oil price hikes or curb global warming.

On the contrary, man’s use of solar power energy is almost as ancient as man itself. Of course, at the beginning there weren’t any solar panels nor photovoltaic cells that could transform solar energy into electricity. But it is clear that man widely tapped on the solar energy from the sun.

One very basic use of solar energy by man was, and still is, in growing food. From the time man gathered fruits and seeds from trees, bushes and other plants, to the time man grows and harvests vegetables from his farms (to feed himself or his farm animals), he has been making use of solar energy stored in plants. Through the process of photosynthesis, the plants absorb solar energy and convert carbon dioxide and water into carbon food compounds that allowed man to make use of energy from the sun.

Some of these carbon compounds eventually got buried for million of years and give rise to the fossil fuels (e.g. crude oil, coal) that mankind use so extensively today.

There are other instances of man’s use of solar energy in history. For example, there are records as far back as the 7th century BC of the use of magnifying glass to concentrate solar energy from the sun’s rays in order to start fires.

Also, the Greeks and Romans used to build houses with the sun in mind. They would build their homes facing the sun and use glass to store the heat energy from the sun inside their homes. Many roman bathhouses were also designed in this way. The Romans were also the first to build a kind of greenhouse. By storing the heat energy from the sun inside a glass structure, they were able to acclimatize and grow plants that came from places with warmer temperatures.

But it wasn’t until the year 1767 that solar energy history would have a new and important breakthrough. It was in that year that the Swiss scientist, Horace de Saussure, created the world’s first solar collector. This solar collector was cone shaped and was used to cook. Sir John Herschel took the collector with him in his South Africa expedition in the 1830s.

In the 1860s, August Mouchet, a French mathematician, conceived the first solar energy powered steam engine. He built a series of engines in the following years that were used for several purposes.

In 1873, solar energy history took another leap with the discovery of the photoconductivity of selenium. And in 1876, Richard Evans and William Grylls Adams discovered that when exposed to light, selenium is able to produce electricity. This discovery led to the creation of the first photovoltaic cells that pave the way for the creation of solar panels.

Subsequently, several appliances that make use of solar energy to power their functions started appearing. In 1891, the first solar powered water heater was patented by Clarence Kemp, an inventor from Baltimore.

In 1905, Albert Einstein published an important paper on photoelectric effect which in 1921 won him the Nobel Prize. In 1916, Robert Millikan while trying to discredit Einstein’s theory on the photoelectric effect, was the first man to prove him right. Nevertheless, during the first half of the 20th century, there weren’t many new developments in man’s use of solar energy.

In the 1950s, the silicon photovoltaic cell was developed in the Bell Telephone Laboratories in the United States by Calvin Fuller, Daryl Chapin and Gerald Pearson. These were the first photovoltaic cells able to produce a bigger amount of energy that previous ones but their production was still quite expensive for general use. These were used of telecommunication satellites.

In the 1960s, the photovoltaic cells were used to provide energy for space technology, like NASA’s Limbus spacecraft and the Orbiting Astronomical Observatory.

It was not until 1972 that solar energy came down to Earth and the French installed at a village school in Niger a photovoltaic system to operate a television. From then on, several other solar installations and experiments started appearing all over the world. From Australia to the United States people were starting to rediscover the use of solar energy. Large scale solar thermal facilities were even built to produce electricity for the general masses.

Today, the technologies for tapping on solar energy have become so much more available that it is even possible for anyone to acquire solar panels to produce electricity to power their homes. Solar energy is, more than ever, a reality. But the solar energy history is far from over. There is still so much more we can do to increase solar energy efficiency and tap on the advantages of solar energy. The future of solar energy is bright. And as our solar energy technology advances, so does its history.

Read related articles:

Return to page on Alternative Forms Of Energy from this page on Solar Energy History

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