Fire to Electrons: The History of Harnessing Solar Power

The use of solar energy to heat water for our homes and create electricity without the use of fossil fuels are recent technological innovations with great promise ahead. However, solar history and man’s attempts to harness power from the sun dates back nearly 2,800 years.

Here is a brief look at the story of solar power:

700 B.C.

With the invention of the magnifying glass, humans soon learned they could use the lens to concentrate the sun’s rays to start fires.

The Archimedes Myth 214 B.C.

Stories passed down through history claim that the Greek inventor Archimedes created a heat ray system that destroyed the enemy ships with fire during the Siege of Syracuse. Supposedly, a collection of mirrors or highly polished shields concentrated sun’s rays into pinpoint laser-like beams that ignited the wooden vessels. Knowing what we know today about solar technology, the story is a fanciful myth.

The First Solar Oven 1767

Swiss physicist Horace de Saussure is credited with creating the first solar oven in 1767. Two hundred and fifty years later, millions of people around the world use the same solar technology to cook their daily meals.

The Discovery of the Photovoltaic Effect – 1839

French physicist Edmund Becquerel discovered that that electrical voltage could be created when a material is exposed to light. That discovery would become the basis for creating solar power in the future.

Invention of the Photovoltaic Cell – 1883

Charles Fritts, an American inventor, is credited with being the first man to show how to make solar cells using selenium wafers.

The Birth of Photovoltaics – 1954

Three Bell Laboratories scientists, David Chapin, Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson, are credited with producing the first practical photovoltaic cell (solar cell). Others before them had produced solar cells, but they were all impractical because of a poor conversion rate of sunlight to electricity to only 4%. The Bell Lab scientists figured out a way to push that factor 11%, the conversion rate deemed necessary for practical application of solar technology.

Today

Today, solar power farms dot the earth’s surface. These huge facilities use hundreds of thousands of mirrors aimed at a single collection tower to convert water to steam. The steam powers turbines that in turn power generators that create enough electricity to serve entire cities and towns through solar technology.

Once thought of as oddities, solar roof panels that convert solar energy to electricity for individual hones are commonplace now.

Solar technology has done much to reduce the world’s dependency on fossil fuels. Cleaner air and water are only two of the side benefits of harnessing the unlimited power of sun instead of depleting the earth’s non-renewable fuels, coal and petroleum.

The Future

Someday our automobiles and trucks will probably be sun-powered. Solar-generated electricity will most certainly power more and more of our factories and homes, and solar engineers envision giant solar farms orbiting the earth to reflect the sun down to collection points around the world. What was once only solar fantasy is fast becoming reality.