Five stories in the history of solar power

Solar power has been the future for a lot longer than you might have imagined. Here are five stories in the early history of solar power that got us to where we are today.

1767 - Saussure’s solar oven

Horace-Bénédict de Saussure was a scientist and explorer from Geneva who is sometimes credited with inventing the solar oven.

It was basically a small wooden box lined with a layer of black cork and three panes of glass stuck in it. Sunshine would enter the box through a window and, due to the glass and black cork, it’d get really hot in there. Saussure would take it up mountains and used it work out that solar heat increased with altitude. Or you could use it to heat up your lunch.

This invention also helped us discover the thing we now call the greenhouse effect. But that’s another story.

1839 - The photovoltaic effect

Back in 1839, aged just 19, French physicist Edmond Becquerel was in his father’s lab experimenting with silver chloride, acid and some platinum electrodes... and discovered photovoltaic effect.

The photovoltaic effect the basic principle of a modern photovoltaic solar cell (aka PV cells): when a material can absorb light and use it to create electrical voltage. In 1876, British electrical engineer Willoughby Smith discovered the photoconductivity of selenium and in 1883 American inventor developed the first solar cells using selenium. Today, most solar cells use silicon.

1878 - Steam solar power

Augustin Mouchot started off as a maths teacher, but managed to get French government funding to travel to Algeria (which had more sunshine than Paris) to study solar power full time.

At first, Mouchot played around with solar ovens, powering a small engine off their steam. Wanting more, he developed the first parabolic solar trough - a sort of massive funnel of mirrors that concentrates the sunlight. The tech’s still used today, in concentrated solar plants (though it looks a bit different).

 Photo: Amble,  cc

Photo: Amble, cc

His assistant Abel Pifre developed a solar powered printing press using the same tech. So the story goes, even when it was cloudy, this press could work all afternoon, producing 500 copies an hour of a special solar-themed magazine, the ‘Soleil-Journal’.

1941 - The first solar home

Not all the solar champions were men. Meet Maria Telkes. Born in Budapest, she emigrated to the US in 1925 and, in 1940, joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's solar energy project, including work to build a house entirely heated by solar power.

Apparently it was like a normal house, but chopped in half with a south-facing wall of windows to let light in. Telkes also developed sort of proto-solar panels where air trapped between panes of glass and metal would soak up the sun's heat before being stored in bins full of salt. On sunny days the salt would melt and absorb the heat, cooling the air. Then when the temperatures fell, the salt cooled and gave off stored heat. Telkes' cousins lived in the house with their children for a bit, but the project was sadly discontinued. She went on to work loads more on solar though earning her the nickname "the Sun Queen.”

1958 - Space solar

In March 1958, the world’s first solar satellite, Vanguard 1, went into space. It was only the fourth satellite to be successfully launched (after a couple of Sputniks and Explorer 1, from the US).

Back then, solar power was really expensive to produce. It was fun and exciting, but other sources (e.g. coal) were so much cheaper. But you don't have so many fuel options in space. So Nasa bothered with solar when other people didn't. And all the money that went into researching solar power for their spacecraft helped bring down the price of solar panels we use on Earth too.

Vanguard 1 also helped us develop the satellite tech we use today, not just solar power. This plays a massive part of our global communications infrastructure, and it’s been really helpful in measuring things like sea ice melt and discovering the hole in the ozone layer, as well as helping us build better weather forecasting.

It is still up there if you want to give it a wave some time - in fact, it is the oldest manmade satellite in orbit, even though we lost communications with it in 1964.

It's about time we made the most of this amazing technology. We’re calling on the government to make sure all suitable new buildings have solar panels fitted as standard. Will you join us?

Banner photo: National Renewable Energy Lab, cc