Solar Energy History From Ancient Egypt to Your House



Solar energy history spans almost 3 millennia, and started when the first magnifying glass was used to concentrate the sun's rays and light fires in the 7th century B.C. Of course, today we have solar powered cars, houses and boats. We have come quite a long way since ancient Egyptians were starting fires and burning ants in the desert. While the history of solar power has had hundreds of highlights in the 2700 years since, there are several major achievements worth note.

Skip ahead from those sandy desert times to the 6th century A.D., when sunrooms on residential buildings were so popular that the Roman Emperor Justinian added "sun rights" to the famous Justinian code. This first clear code of behavior and law compiled in 529 A.D. was the precursor to the legal rights we have to the sun's rays today.

In the 1830s Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure built the world's first solar collector, which was employed later by Sir John Herschel to cook his food during a South African expedition in the late 1830s. This was a high water mark in the history of solar energy. Solar power could be stored today, and used later.

But these major points meant nothing until solar collection could be replicated in a small, portable device, what we today call solar panels. In 1883, only 4 years after Thomas Edison released the first commercially viable light bulb, American inventor Charles Fritts produced the first solar cell made from selenium wafers. This was maybe the most important step in solar energy history, allowing researchers to begin experimenting with how to harness these solar cells to improve daily lifestyles. Solar power history was about to heat up.

Solar energy history documents several important steps forward in the next 70 years, but nothing as commercially as important as the birth of the same photovoltaic technology we use today. In 1954 in the United States, Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson developed the first silicon photovoltaic cell at Bell Labs. This was the first solar cell that was able to capture and store enough solar power to run common electrical devices.

It took only 6 more years for Hoffman Electronics to achieve 14% efficiency in their photovoltaic cells in 1960. Then, in 1981, the history of solar energy took flight. Paul MacCready successfully built and flew the first solar powered airplane, the Solar Challenger, and flew it from France to England over the English Channel. The plane held over 15,000 solar cells on its wings.

And in 2001, a mere 20 years later, Home Depot becomes the first nationwide retailer to sell residential solar power systems in three of its stores in San Diego, California. Eventually expanding to over 100 stores, solar power had finally become a common home improvement item.

As you can see, once the solar energy history ball got rolling, milestones began to happen quicker. What does the near future of solar power hold, and how will it be remembered in solar power history records? Solar power is rapidly becoming as financially viable as traditional electricity, as solar technology leaps exponentially forward. By the year 2020, many solar energy experts see it as a valid competitor for your electrical dollar. Will you be making solar energy history, or be left behind in the sands of time?


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