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The History of Solar Energy Throughout The Ages

The history of solar power can be traced back differently depending on whether you are looking at thermal solar energy history or photovoltaic solar energy history. Photovoltaic solar energy is the technology used in solar panels, while solar thermal energy can be used either to provide heat to homes or water, or can also be used in a solar thermal collector to cook food or even in large scale solar power stations.

The history of solar power in terms of photovoltaics is much more recent, and humans have only known about the principle of photovoltaics since the mid 1800’s. However, solar energy history in general dates back to at least the 3rd Century B.C., and probably even before this. 

History of Solar Thermal Energy

  • Ancient Greece

The first recorded use of solar thermal energy was around the 4rd Century B.C., when the Ancient Greeks used mirrors to concentrate the sun’s rays onto a focal point to light fires and torches for religious ceremonies. The Romans also used this same technology, although many believe that this was merely another one of the ideas that they borrowed from the Greeks.

history of solar energyIn the middle of the 2nd Century B.C., the Greek scientist Archimedes was said to have used a huge array of bronze shields to redirect the sunlight onto a focal point, thus setting on fire the ships of Greece's enemies. The Greek Navy successfully recreated this feat in 1973.

The Greeks were also known to use what are commonly called solar tubes or solar skylights to allow light and heat into their homes. These devices usually contain mirrors inside them to redirect the sun’s rays into the home. They are still quite commonly used today, and the design essentially hasn’t changed since the time of the Greeks.

  • Chinese Use of Solar Energy in Early A.D.

history of solar energyThe first recorded use of solar energy in China occurred around 20 A.D. when the Chinese used the same principles as the Greeks to light fires using mirrors to concentrate the sun’s energy. It’s not known whether they came up with this idea independently, although most believe that they did and possible knew about it for centuries before.

History of Solar Energy for Heating Purposes

It is known that the Romans used gigantic windows in their bathhouses to heat the buildings and the baths themselves as early as the 1st Century A.D. 

It was extremely common for houses in Ancient Rome to have sunrooms which they used to help heat their homes, and by the 6th Century they even had laws that guaranteed houses sun rights so they could have an unobstructed view of the sun to heat their homes.

The Native Americans were also known to use the sun to help heat up their dwellings. Some tribes, such as the Anasazi lived in south facing caves to help capture the sunlight to heat their homes in the winter. Other tribes, especially the nomadic ones, also placed the entrances to their teepees and tents to the south for the same purpose. 

Photovoltaic Solar Energy History

  • Edmond Becquerel Discovers the Photovoltaic Effect

French scientist Edmond Becquerel was the first person to discover the photovoltaic effect in 1839. While doing an experiment on electricity conduction, he discovered that certain materials conducted more electricity when they were exposed to light. However, his findings were not taken seriously or given much credit and the idea was basically forgotten about for another thirty years.

In 1873, English electrical engineer Willoughby Smith discovered that Selenium was photoconductive and produced a small amount of electricity when exposed to light. This lead others to start researching the topic and developing their own selenium solar cells, although none of these proved to produce enough electricity to do anything yet.

  • Albert Einstein’s Work on the Photoelectric Effect

In 1905, Albert Einstein wrote and published a paper describing his theory on the photoelectric effect. He would later win the Nobel Prize in 1921 for these theories. However, this was only after they had been proven to be true by American physicist Robert A. Milliken in 1916. Milliken himself was also a Nobel Laureate for his work in the field of photoelectrics.

  • The First Commercial Photovoltaic Solar Panels

It wasn’t until silicon started being used that solar panels became efficient enough to be a viable means of generating electricity. The first silicon solar cell was created at Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1954. This first silicon PV solar cell had an efficiency of around only 4%, although they were able to create a cell with around 11% efficiency many years later.

  • Photovoltaic Solar Panels in Space

In the mid 1950’s, solar panels were developed that could be used on spacecrafts and satellites. This would lead to Vanguard 1 being the first satellite containing PV solar panels to be launched in 1958. The Vanguard 1 had an array of very small solar panels which generated enough electricity to keep its radios powered. Several other satellites with PV solar panels onboard were also sent into space that year, and this was the first major commercial use of solar panels, as they had yet to take hold anywhere else. 

  • History of Solar Energy in the 1960’s until Now

The 1960’s saw a lot of research and money being put into developing more efficient solar panels. Many Japanese companies started producing cheaper, higher efficiency cells, and many of these companies are still leaders in the market today. Recent developments include thin film solar panels which are even cheaper to produce and more efficient. There has also been much research into using nanoparticles, which could further increase the effectiveness of photovoltaic solar panels. 

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