The History of Solar Power

The History of Solar Power

Solar Power Yesterday and Today

The history of solar power reaches back in time farther than you might think.With everything in the news today, you would think that solar power is a relatively new concept. It is definitely not new by any stretch of the imagination. As early as 7 BC the suns energy was being used in various manners, ancient people were known to use magnifying glasses to burn ants, build homes with windows that faced the south in order to collect as much warmth as possible from the sun's rays. These are just a few ways that solar power was explored by our ancient ancestors.

Storing Solar Power

The early applications of solar power were limited. They found great uses for the energy like lighting fires and warming certain rooms of the house however to be feasible as a replacement energy source the key is storage. As early as 1767, scientists were experimenting with this very idea. A Swiss scientist by the name of Horace de Saussure is thought to be the first person to actually build a solar energy collector. He set out to examine how effective glass was in trapping solar heat. Horace began the experiment buy building a miniature greenhouse five walls thick.

He discovered many things from the first experiment, like the fact that the innermost box contained the highest level of solar heat. He would go on to do various exercises attempting to limit the amount of heat that escaped and proving that the same amount of energy from the sun hit the mountain tops and the valleys and the difference in temperature was due to the atmospheric conditions and not the amount of sun rays. Horace was noted as saying that perhaps one day some usefulness would come from his hot boxes, and indeed, it did, as it was the prototype for the solar collectors of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Mid 1800's

Moving on to the mid 1800s, we find the predecessor of the modern parabolic dish. French mathematician August Mouchet and his assistant created the first solar powered steam engines. 1876 brought about the experiments, which proved selenium when exposed to sunlight created energy. Though the energy was not substantial enough to have any practical application it nonetheless proved that energy could be created from a solid.


By the early 1900's many scientist were looking at solar power and its possibilities. Even Einstein published writings about it along with his theory of relativity. In 1908, William Bailey of the Carnegie Steel company invents a solar collection device comprised of copper coils and an insulated box, the early stages of what we see now. Soon after a Polish scientist discovered a way to grow single crystal silicone, and we thought silicone was a new idea!

However, it would be nearly forty years later before the first solar cell would be created using silicone. In 1954 Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson would invent the first photovoltaic solar cell. It would be the first that was suitable for practical applications; it was able to run common electrical equipment. The only drawback is the fact that efficiency was still quite low, 4% originally and 11% in the end.

Though solar power was, still a long way from everyday use the late 50's and 60's saw a dramatic rise in the use of photovoltaic solar cells as power sources for satellites orbiting the planet. NASA even got in on the technology when they launched an Orbiting Astronomical Observatory powered by solar technology; it was the first of its kind. 


As the 70s rolled around, we had the first oil crisis. It was at this point that the government decided our dependence on foreign oil was detrimental to the country. This sparked a renewed interest in solar power applications. More research money was made available and research picked up the pace. Unfortunately, the oil crisis was short lived and solar energy would once more fade into the background of society.

Throughout the preceding years advances in selenium, silicone and other various materials were being discovered and slowly but surely were bringing down the cost of solar electricity. The University of Delaware the first thin film cell exceeds 10% efficiency using copper- sulfide/cadmium- sulfide. Each of these individual achievements paved the way for the next generation of solar energy collection.

Recent History

Over the last couple of decades, the advances in solar energy collection and storage have grown by leaps and bounds. Entire buildings are now sporting solar power systems that make them completely self-sufficient. As technology and demand have increased, the price of production has steadily fallen. Today it is possible for the average American to power their entire home from the suns abundant energy. The cost at this point is high enough that it is not a prevalent practice but we are getting there. Soon you could see a country free from dependence on fossil fuels or foreign oil. This would drastically reduce pollution and the greenhouse effect caused by it.

Innovations by companies like Terra Sun who have created a thin holographic film that allows solar panels to be incorporated into buildings as skylights. Other companies are finding ways to incorporate solar and wind and even experimenting with the creation of solar vehicles. We have come a long way over the years and some would say we still have a ways to go but with the speed at which technology is advancing you should not be surprised to see serious improvements in applications very soon.