In the early 20th century, solar power was a rare and expensive source of energy. Since then, it has become more accessible and affordable, making it the perfect fit for eco-friendly homes and businesses alike.
It’s now possible to generate your own electricity using the Sun’s free energy, and the pioneers of the solar industry were primarily physicists, mathematicians, and engineers who worked in secret to bring this wonderful innovation to light.
Here are some of the most influential people in solar energy who changed the way we use electricity.
You may know of Tesla, the genius who invented many things, among them a mechanical television that can play music and close-circuit television whereby viewers can watch TV stations from across the country. But did you know that Tesla was also the man who invented the photovoltaic cell, or that his lab in Colorado achieved amazing success experimenting with solar power?
Tesla’s work in solar energy was so significant that in 1918 he was awarded the honor of serving as the first chancellor of the National Institute of Solar Energy, which was later renamed the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. NREL is still the preeminent U.S. research lab for studying solar energy today.
Tesla is probably best known for his work with solar energy, but he also had a hand in developing hydroelectricity, railroads, and even cable cars. His passion for electric-powered vehicles led him to create the Tesla Coil, a device that allowed him to create an electric field of any magnitude simply by generating an electric current.
Wigner is perhaps best known for being part of the Manhattan Project, the research group that developed the first atomic bombs during World War II. While working on the project, he discovered important theoretical work by Irish physicist John Cockcroft and British physicist Ernest Rutherford about the physics of nuclear reactions. He published their work in the famous textbook by the same name, which is now regarded as a bible of sorts in the field of nuclear physics. He was awarded the status of Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in recognition of his work in theoretical physics.
In the years following World War II, Wigner turned his attention to renewable energy, specifically to developing a practical process to create synthetic diamonds through the transmutation of metals. He successfully developed a way to create the perfect diamond, leading to the founding of Wigner Diamonds in 1970. To this date, the company is credited with making more than 400,000 carat diamonds, which are used in the manufacturing of high-end jewelery.
Dee is best known for being the first to isolate diamond from its carbon source in 1774, a feat which required him to cut up numerous diamonds in order to determine their source. He is also the man who developed a technique for polishing and focusing the Sun’s rays into powerful beams that paved the way for the advent of photovoltaic cells.
After Dee’s death in 1854, other members of his team continued development of his techniques, leading to the creation of the diamond industry as we know it today. While Dee’s work was groundbreaking, it’s important to note that he never actually created a diamond; all of his experiments were directed towards isolating carbon from its source and determining the number of carats it contained. His team was also responsible for cutting the large diamond known as the Ceylon diamond, which has an estimated value of over $10 million today.
Edison is best known for his many inventions, among them the polyphase electric organ, or the sound machine. This was a device that allowed him to record and play back sound, a feat which eventually led to him being awarded the Edison Medal in 1901. He is also credited with creating the modern-day light bulb.
Edison was an early and very significant adopter of the solar energy technology, using it for several of his large-scale power projects, such as the Niagara Falls Power Plant and the New York City Power Plant. He even installed solar-powered lights on the roof of his Menlo Park laboratory. At the time, these were considered some of the world’s first solar panels.
Edison was so enamored with solar energy that he is credited with creating the word “solarize” and later the expression “solarize a device.” He believed that all energy was derived from the Sun, and to this day his tombstone is adorned with the words “Inventor of the Wireless Airplane.”
Charles H. Kennelly
Kennelly is best known for being one of the first scientists to study the Sun as a viable source of energy. He spent several years in Antarctica during the late 1800s and early 1900s, where he discovered that snow reflected more sunlight than ice and that glaciers reflect more sunlight than the land surrounding them. He also found that the farther north you go, the less sunlight you’ll encounter. All of this has led to the formulation of the Kennelly Polar Bear Theory, which states that near the South Pole, the Sun never rises above the horizon and never sets, meaning that it never stops generating energy, and the farther north you go, the colder it gets, slowing down the generation of energy.
After returning from his expedition, Kennelly became interested in harnessing the Sun’s energy and began working on developing a practical way to collect and store it. He developed a technique for concentrating sunlight using mirrors, a process which he dubbed “parheliography.” This technique was later named after him and in 1908 he became the first director of the American Solar Engineering Society. At the time, storing and transporting solar power was difficult, so much so that in 1912 the U.S. Congress passed the Solar Energy Act, which provided federal funding for solar power research.
Kennelly is credited with developing numerous other technologies, such as solar thermal power, a process whereby sunlight is used to heat up a working fluid (usually water) which in turn is used to generate electricity; solar dish antennae, which work on the same principle as solar thermal power but are used to capture diffuse light rather than direct sunlight; and photochemistry, light-induced chemical reactions which also produce electricity.
Arpels is best known for creating the first artificial diamond, which he accomplished in 1910. This was a feat that earned him a place in history as one of the discoverers of the diamond. He also perfected a new technique of taking apart diamonds and recutting them into smaller, more brilliant pieces.
For many years, Arpels’ team cut and polished diamonds in secret, giving them the perfect cut and polish that was demanded by owners of fine jewelry. After World War II, Arpels started Diamond Improvement Company so that he could share his technique with other jewelers, earning him the nickname “The Father of Diamond Repair.”
In the 1920s and 1930s, Arpels worked with Nobel laureate Fritz Haber on artificial silicon compounds, or silicides, which are a class of chemicals that are both diamond and silicon based. The two developed a bond over their shared interest in solar energy, and in 1931 they founded the Gemological Society of America, now known as the Gemological Institute of America. The two also founded a new company, Arpels Chemical Company, in order to commercialize their new synthetic materials. Today, the latter is known as Diamond Materials and is a leading producer of synthetic gems and diamond-related products.
Carl Borromäus von Helmont
Bevon Helmont is perhaps best known for creating the first organic dye in 1753, but he is also credited with inventing the battery, or a device that can generate electricity, in 1745. This was a crucial invention that helped spur the industrial revolution.
In 1809, Helmont coined the term “solar battery” to describe his invention, further developing it into a practical system in 1823. He called his invention a “pile,” or “pile of batteries,” and the word “solar” was later added to the term, becoming known as the “solar battery.”
Helmont’s work on solar batteries and organic dyes led to his work as a mineralogist and pharmacist, both of which he practiced simultaneously at the Vienna Medical School. He spent much of his time researching new ways to treat disease using what he perceived to be nature’s perfect remedies—plant-derived medicines. His discoveries led to the creation of the first pharma company in the world, which he founded with his son, Moritz. The firm is now known as Helmont Pharma and is still based in Vienna.