Solar Energy History: From the 1800s to Today

For most of human history, the only option for acquiring energy was either through the traditional modes of generating electricity using fire or waterpower, or through animal-powered vehicles. As the industrial revolution reshaped society, so too did energy requirements – from basic necessities like lighting and heating, to more enjoyable pursuits like powering vehicles and running machines.

The modern era of solar energy started in the 1800s, when scientists discovered that sunlight could be harnessed to generate electricity. The technology was initially expensive to install and maintain, and most houses didn’t have the space for large solar panels. However, as electric utilities expanded their services and the cost of solar electricity decreased, more and more people started turning to solar power.

Here, we’ll examine the fascinating history of solar energy, from its early days using hand-cranked mechanical devices, to its more modern incarnations using silicon crystals and photovoltaic cells.

Early Days

In 1881, a British company called The Electric Light Company began offering solar electric lighting systems for homes and businesses. The energy would be collected using large solar panels, coupled with a windmill or waterwheel, and stored in a battery bank. When the sun went down, the battery-powered lights would come on, providing illumination until the next dawn.

It was a popular option for those who could afford the luxury at the time, because it provided continuous lighting without the need to constantly watch over a fire or maintain a warm glow from a gaslight. Even those who could only afford a single light would often choose this option. In very old cities, like New York City, store signs would glow at night using these types of systems, as well as in the windows of homes and buildings.

The system was fairly easy to use – assuming you had a good location for the panels and could afford the luxury of a battery bank. You would simply need to connect the solar panels to a windmill or waterwheel, which would then turn a crank that would connect to a bell mechanism. When the sun went down, the electricity would be stored in the battery bank and used to illuminate lights and appliances as needed.

Despite its popularity, solar electric lighting didn’t take off as a mass-consumer product until the early 1900s, when electric utilities began expanding their services to include the generation of electricity for larger businesses and homes. This, in turn, led to the development of several major companies like General Electric and, later, Westinghouse, that specialized in manufacturing solar-powered devices. During this time, residential solar power took the form of “solar ponds” – large glass-covered tanks that would collect sunlight and heat, which could be used to generate electricity.

The Rise Of The Semiconductor Industry

The semiconductor industry, which became one of the mainstays of the modern IT revolution, began life in 1933, when German scientists working on crystal growth used radioactivity to create structures on a nanometer scale (a nanometer is one billionth of a meter). When they applied for a patent, they were not accurately describing their invention and didn’t realize the true potential of what they were creating.

However, while they were working on this new technology, they noticed that when they used radioactive materials to dope semi-conducting silicon, the resulting material manifested certain unique properties that could be used in a variety of ways to make products like solid state illumination devices (light bulbs), photoelectric cells, and even amplifiers and computers!

It was at this point, with the invention of the transistor, that the potential of solar energy as a mass-consumption product became truly apparent. The solid state illumination device wasn’t available for retail sale until a few years later, in 1939, but this didn’t stop people from buying them anyway, because they provided the luxury of convenience that was previously unavailable.

Later that year, in 1939, researchers at the National Inorganic Carbon Monoxide Corporation (NICCO) independently created the first working prototype of a solar-powered car. This marked the beginning of what is now known as the “solar car” movement, as people began looking towards the sun as a more sustainable form of energy. Just a few months later, the U.S. government put into place several new energy policies, including tax incentives for those who purchased solar cars, creating the perfect environment for the industry to flourish.

World War II

The use of solar power didn’t stop during World War II. In fact, the technology improved during this time, with multiple companies developing ways to utilize the power of the sun during wartime. Some of the more notable designs include the German Stahlhelm, or “Steel Helmet,” which was fabricated from a combination of metal and glass, and the “Suntan”, which was made using a plastic shell and polyester cloth.

The United States government also developed a type of low-emission paint called Solar Paint, which, when applied to a steel surface, would absorb ultraviolet rays and generate its own heat, instead of heating up in use like normal paint. This meant that structures made with solar paint would be much more efficient at absorbing heat, which could then be utilized for whatever purpose the user desired.

Post-War Era

After the war ended in 1945, the industry grew rapidly, and by 1951, there were over 150 million solar-powered devices installed around the world. The space race also provided further incentive for those interested in solar power, with the possibility of winning an award for developing a viable method of generating electricity using the sun. As a result, governments and businesses, both developed and developing, began embracing solar power as a viable alternative to fossil fuels and other more polluting energy sources. One of the first countries to do this was Sweden, which in 1959, established one of the first state-supported solar projects, now known as the Solnova Group.

One of the major problems the industry faced during this time was the limited shelf life of solar panels. When they were first developed, they were only designed to last about 10 years. However, as the industry grew, the lifespan of these devices decreased, meaning that if you were to upgrade your system every few years, you would eventually end up replacing a large percentage of your total investment, especially if you were to buy new ones each time. This issue was addressed to some extent using the so-called “closed-loop” system, which would work with existing panels to generate more electricity without needing to replace the whole thing.

Modern Day

In the decades since then, the industry has continued to evolve, with new products being developed and new ways of using solar power changing how we interact with light and energy. Today, solar power is more accessible than it’s ever been before, with multiple companies providing products and services, as well as opportunities for those who want to get involved.

There are still issues that need to be addressed, like the limited lifespan of solar panels, but the world of solar energy is a very interesting and diverse space, and one that continues to grow and evolve with each passing day.

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