The History of Solar Power

The use of the sun to create energy, whether in the form of heat or electricity, is not new. Solar energy has been in use for many centuries. The following is a brief overview of the history of solar power.

SundialHistory of Solar Power in the Ancient World

The Assyrians may have been the first to implement the use of solar energy by using magnifying lenses. The Nimrud lens, a 3000-year-old crystalline-rock, may have been used as part of an ancient telescope (which could explain why they were good astronomers) but it’s also been proposed that this could have been used to burn objects by focusing sunlight on them.

It’s almost unrealistic to assume that no one in that era would have looked through the glass and discovered its magnifying properties, as well as accidentally discovering that sunlight could easily be focused to heat or burn things. The Greeks certainly marveled at these lenses. The wrote, in amazement “… that beautiful, transparent stone with which they kindle flames …” around the 4th century BC.

The Greco-Roman era eventually developed a design, using shield-mirrors, to light torches for various purposes. Archimedes is said to have used bronze shields and lenses to focus sunlight and set fire to the invading Roman fleet at Syracuse. Half a world away, and later in that era, the Chinese used the same principles.

The Greco-Roman world then developed architectural designs that used sunlight to warm bathhouses and other buildings, by strategically placing openings or windows which faced southwards. Some designs also incorporated the use of glass, to bounce light to other parts of the building. The Romans also used these concepts to build greenhouses. These designs paved the way for the Romans to establish humanity’s Right to Light (or Right to the Sun). In the Seventh Century BC, during the Byzantine Era, they incorporated this fully into the legal system.

History of Solar Power in the Modern Era

The first solar collector was invented by Horace-Bénédict de Saussure, in the year 1767. The original concept, of trapping heat by using glass, was then improved upon further, and it became possible to implement new methods of utilizing and storing solar power. One example of this was the use of the sun to boil water inside a glass-box. Thus, the world’s first solar water heating systems were devised.

The discovery of Selenium, in 1817, propelled an early study of Photovoltaics, and with it began a new phase of development in solar-collector technology. Sunlight was found to amplify the conductivity of Selenium, which produced an electrical current. This opened the door to new designs, which were created and used for the manufacture of other devices, as the years passed on.

Solar Power in the Twentieth Century

In the early 20th century, Albert Einstein and a number of other scientists studied the behavior of light. A process they called “the photoelectric effect” became an important factor which inventors used to improve upon solar-collector technology, and to create more efficient ways of using solar energy.

With the study of the photoelectric effect and the increasing use of silicon, came the rise of photovoltaic technology in the 1950’s.

The first true photovoltaic solar cells exploded onto the scene as industries all over the world jumped at the technology and developed them for efficient use. Solar panels began being utilized to power satellites and other large systems, and modern solar technology gradually replaced all earlier devices, such as glass hotboxes. Solar energy also became known as an alternative to fossil fuels, and was incorporated into power plants.

Solar Power and The Future

The need to use clean forms of energy is becoming rapidly more apparent, as mankind becomes increasingly aware of the consequences global irresponsibility. Fuels are becoming more costly, and we begin to realize that our sources of fossil fuels are finite and not endless. We have a duty to protect ourselves and our home planet. We must start to look ahead and realize that the answer comes from above. The sun is free, and it is well within our rights to use it.

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3 Responses to “The History of Solar Power”

  1. sarah February 7, 2010 at 9:21 am #

    What a great write up of the history of solar energy. Another type of use we have been using for centuries is the “clotheline”, the cheapest way that we can dry our clothes, which I think more people should be utilizing.

    • Anna February 8, 2010 at 12:14 pm #

      @Sarah – Thank you. Funny, you are right about the clothesline. Dryers (or anything that uses heat) use a ton of energy. But then again, there are drawbacks to clothes lines as well. So I think it depends largely on circumstances.

  2. Mark April 8, 2010 at 11:49 am #

    Interesting article, I never thought solar energy was being utilized that long ago. Its amazing how intelligent some of these people were.

    Regarding anna’s comment, what are the drawbacks to clothe lines, I cant think of any and I think everybody with a garden will use them. I know they do in england.

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