History Class!: Solar Energy

Ashleigh AngellOctober 10, 20181810

History Class!: Solar Energy

Let’s go back to school by discussing the timeline of solar energy. What you might not realize is just how far back the history of solar goes. Get out your notebooks and pens, because there will be a test on this later! (Just kidding). Keep reading this article to learn the full timeline of solar and photovoltaics.

The Origin of Solar

Solar has actually been around since ancient human civilizations, just not in the way we think of solar today. Using glass and mirrors, Greeks and Romans were able to light torches, and this method of harnessing the sun’s energy soon became known as “burning mirrors” and continued to be used by the Chinese later on in 20 A.D.

Another way ancient civilizations used solar was in a way that we continue to use it today: passive solar. This is when large windows are placed towards the south end of a home or building in order to capture the most of the sun’s energy possible to keep your home as warm as possible.

Enter: The Solar Panel

Despite the use of mirrors, glass, and passive solar, the solar panel’s invention was truly the defining moment of solar history. More than one person has actually been credited for the invention, as it took multiple contributions to get to where we are today.

The first major contributor was Edmond Becquerel, a French scientist who’s credited for inventing the solar cell. He discovered the photovoltaic effect, which is how light increases electric generation.

Then, in 1873, Willoughby Smith discovered that selenium has photoconductive potential. Though he did not do anything with this discovery, it led to William Grylss Adams and Richard Evans Day discovering in 1876 that the key to turning selenium into electricity was sunlight. From there, in 1883, Charles Fritts made the first actual invention that combined these ideas, creating selenium wafers. This is why Charles Fritts is often credited as the inventor of the solar cells.

However, it goes even further, as modern solar cells are made with silicon instead of selenium. Daryl Caphin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson are the ones who invented the silicon PV cells in 1954, making them credited as the true solar cell inventors.

The Story Continues

Aside from the invention of the PV panels themselves, there have been several other amazing historical events in solar’s history.

In 1958, when solar was used to power satellites, the Vanguard I had a small one-watt panel powering its radios. And in 1964, a satellite was powered solely through its solar panels. In 1966, an observatory was also powered solely by a solar panel system.

In 1973, the fusion of solar panels and buildings first was introduced, when the University of Delaware constructed a building with a solar rooftop, similar to Tesla’s solar shingles.

The first airplane to run on solar was introduced in 1981, built by Paul MacCready. In 1998, they took that to the next level when they designed a remote controlled solar aircraft that reached 80,000 feet. In 2001, NASA broke that record, with their solar aircraft that managed to reach 96,000 feet.

The White House has gone back and forth with solar power. In 1979, Jimmy Carter had solar panels installed, but Ronald Reagan had them removed in 1981, and then Barack Obama had them reinstalled.

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