Today, solar power is a hot topic. We’re installing solar panels on our homes, businesses, and even making solar cars and other products powered by the sun. But what’s interesting about the use of solar power is that it’s not a recent innovation. In fact, solar history spans from the 7th Century B.C. to today!
So what did our ancestors use solar power for and where are we today? Here’s a great timeline and information on the milestones of solar power provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.
In the 7th Century B.C., humans used magnifying glass to make fire and kill ants. In the 3rd and 2ndCenturies B.C. Greeks and Romans used mirrors to light torches for religious purposes.
By the 1st to 4th Centuries A.D., solar power was used to warm Roman bath houses! By the 6thCentury A.D. sunrooms on homes and public buildings were so common that there was a “sun rights” code to ensure individuals had access to the sun!
In 1767 Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure was credited with building the world’s first solar collector. In the 1830s, Sir John Herschel used the solar collector technology to cook food during an expedition to South Africa.
Over the next 100 years, many inventions and milestones were recorded including the first solar powered engine invented by French mathematician August Mouchet. By 1891, Clarence Kemp patented the first commercial solar water heater. He was an inventor from Baltimore.
In 1905 Albert Einstein published a paper on photoelectric effect. Concurrently, he published his paper on the theory of relativity!
Just three years later, in 1908, William J. Bailley of the Carnegie Steel Company invented a solar collector with copper coils and an insulated box, which is roughly, its present design. In 1954 Daryl Chapin Fuller and Gerald Pearson develop the silicon photovoltaic cell at Bell Labs, the first solar cell capable of converting enough of the sun’s energy into power to run everyday electrical equipment. This is essentially the birth of photovoltaic technology in the United States
By the mid-1950s the world’s first solar water heating and passive designed commercial office building is designed by architect Frank Bridgers. The solar powered building has been operating continuously ever since and the Bridgers-Paxton Building is now in the National Historic Register.
In 1977 the U.S. Department of Energy launched the Solar Energy Research Institute “National Renewable Energy Laboratory”, a federal facility dedicated to harnessing power from the sun.
In that same year, total photovoltaic manufacturing production exceeded 500 kilowatts. By 1983 worldwide photovoltaic production exceeds 21.3 megawatts, with sales of more than $250 million. By 1993 Pacific Gas & Electric completes installation of the first grid-supported photovoltaic system in Kerman, California. The 500-kilowatt system was the first “distributed power” effort.
As solar power production and interest grew over the years, worldwide installed photovoltaic capacity reached 1000 megawatts by 1999! In 2002 the largest solar power facility in the Northwest—the 38.7-kilowatt White Bluffs Solar Station—goes online in Richland, Washington.
So with all this development and growth in the solar industry, where are we headed? According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy we could be looking at providing for the electricity needs of the whole country by creating a photovoltaic array within an area 100 miles on a side! Our solar power future is bright!
For a more comprehensive timeline on solar history, visit the links below: