Learn about solar energy history and how it all started.
The history of solar power is a long and fascinating road that has led the modern world to many conveniences and advantages over previous civilizations.
Thanks to solar energy history, we can plug in our hair dryers and dry our locks. Pop bread in the toaster and get toast. And push a button on our TV remote and be entertained for hours on end.
But who is responsible for the history of solar power and all this convenience?
Solar energy was discovered in the height of the industrial revolution when other energy sources such as oil and coal seemed to be in great abundance.
However, before solar power history even began, there were a select group of individuals you could foresee a future with depleting fossil fuel reserves due to an obviously huge but ultimately limited supply.
In 1838, Edmund Becquerel started the history of solar energy when he observed how the nature of certain materials turns light into energy and even published his findings. Although very interesting, this work was not further continued and solar power history went on.
1860 - 1881
Then from 1860 - 1881, Auguste Mouchout (whose research was funded by the French Monarch) patented a design that turned energy from the sun into mechanical steam power and thus made the first motor to run on solar energy... the steam engine. Later he took this steam engine and attached it to a refrigeration unit proving that the sun's rays can make ice! He received much attention for this find and was even awarded a medal.
Unfortunately, solar energy history took a bad turn when his research was cut short by the French Monarch who struck a deal with England for the supply of coal for energy leaving Mouchout's work unexplored further and on the back burner due to lack of funding.
In 1873, a British man named Willoughby Smith was testing material for use in underwater cables and noticed that selenium had a great sensitivity to light. This resulted in further experimentation with selenium cells for energy production.
1876 - 1878
Solar power history happened again when the first book about solar energy was written between 1876 - 1878 by William Adams and it was called: A Substitute for Fuel in Tropical Countries.
By experimenting with the sun and mirrors, Adam's and a student of his named Richard Day were able to power a 2.5 horsepower steam engine. This was much bigger than Mouchout's .5 horse powered steam engine and this design called the Power Tower is still being used in energy applications today.
Charles Fritz was responsible for another breakthrough in solar power history when he created a solar cell with a conversion rate of 1-2% in 1883. At this time in solar energy history, that was a lot!
1885 - 1889
From 1885 to 1889, a French citizen named Charles Tellier performed solar experiments with a non-concentrating/ non-reflecting solar motor and created a solar energy system that could heat water by collecting roof top sunlight. Later, Tellier gained fame as the father of refrigeration and decided not to pursue his solar experiments further.
1868 - 1888
Between 1868 and 1888, an American who immigrated from Sweden named John Ericsson added to the history of solar power by further developing a solar powered steam engine, very much like Mouchout's in design.
He was also one of the first to actively raise awareness about the depleting coal fields of Europe and the eventual inevitability of solar energy use.
1892 - 1905
Next in solar power history, the first solar energy company was founded by Aubrey Eneas and was called The Solar Motor Co. They sold a solar power system to Dr. A.J. Chandler of Mesa, Arizona for $2,160, which was destroyed days later by a windstorm. They then sold another solar energy system to John May, but it too was ruined by a hailstorm. As a result, the company closed down.
Henry Willsie attributed to the history of solar power by being the first person to generate solar energy at night and use it in the day. He even built 2 huge plants in California for the purpose of storing generated solar power. However, his company also folded due to lack of sales.
1906 - 1914
In 1906 - 1914 the largest and most cost-effective solar energy system was built by Frank Shuman's Sun Power Company. It spanned over 10,000 feet, produced a lot of steam, but the problem was it didn't produce enough pressure to be effective. Shuman then joined forces with E.P. Haines to build an irrigation plant just outside of Cairo, which was eventually destroyed during the Great War period.
Calvin Fuller, Gerald Pearson and Daryl Chaplin of Bell Laboratories all contributed the history of solar power by discovering a much more efficient solar panel when they stumbled upon the application of silicon as a semi-conductor. The result was a solar panel with a 6% efficiency rating. Quite an impressive spot in solar power history!
Solar energy history was made in 1956 when the very first commercial solar cell was made available for purchase at $300 per watt. Wow that's expensive. It was typically used then in radios and other "low wattage" devices.
1950s - 1960s
In 1958 the history of solar energy changed again when the space program launched the Vanguard I, which for the first time ever successfully generated electricity using solar power in space.
In 1970, when the OPEC oil embargo came, it also changed solar energy history by growing awareness that we couldn't rely on fossil fuels forever and the world better embraced the possibility of solar power as a viable alternative form of energy. As a result solar history was made when the price of solar cells dropped to $20 per watt - a much more affordable rate which ultimately opened the door for the creation of many more solar powered products and solar energy applications.
1980 - 1991
During the eighties a Los Angeles company named Luz Co. made solar energy history by managing to produce 95% of the entire world's solar electricity. With numbers like this, you'd think they would survive, but when the price of fossil fuels dropped and the government reconsidered state and federal incentives, investors backed out and Luz Co. was shut down. A sore spot in solar power history.
Today, the history of solar power goes on, as solar energy becomes a lot more practical as well as more affordable for both residential and commercial use. This is due to the steady development of solar technology and the invention of better, more efficient solar panels.
People are now able to power their homes, cottages, businesses and outdoor equipment with solar energy for a fraction of what it used to cost.
As the history of solar energy progresses, governments have also relaxed some of the restrictions on solar power usage. In fact, they now even offer rebates, tax benefits and other incentives for utilizing solar power or for solar based employment programs. As a result, more and more people are now realising the benefits of solar power and enjoying the savings.
Click here to go back to the How Solar Power Works section in the exact spot you left off (or just click your browsers back button).