Solar Energy History / It’s Not What You Think
The popular image that solar energy was conceived and born during the 1970’s when people waited angrily in gas lines during the energy crisis of the time. This period made people more receptive to ideas about alternative sources of energy and even initiated steps to end the over reliance on coal and other fossil fuels. This idea is actually a misconception and misses the mark by some 100 years.
It was actually at the very height of the industrial revolution during the 1870’s that devices for harnessing sunlight as a source of energy started to be conceived and developed. A few scientists and engineers of the time went contrary to the prevailing opinion that fossil fuels were inexhaustible and brought up their concerns of what the world was going to do after supplies of fossil fuels where exhausted.
These visionaries did not just talk and produce rhetoric but did in fact explore all the available renewable energy alternatives that we are familiar with today. Most of them ended up with the conclusion that solar power had the most potential and that this outweighed technical barriers existing at the time.
Solar Energy History / The Public’s Wavering Support
Today history is repeating itself our present day engineers have come to the same conclusions that solar power is eminently practical and even environmentally friendly. This technology has proven itself over and over again from a practical standpoint. However, it seems that public support for the development and implementation is again dwindling and might once again be superseded by conventional technologies.
Solar Energy History / A Look at the Early Visionaries
The earliest recorded instance of conversion of sunlight to mechanical energy was attributed to Auguste Mouchout. In the 1860’s he developed a device for generating steam from sunlight that was used to power a turbine to produce electrical energy. He is responsible for the basic knowledge we have of solar energy.
Willoughby Smith was a Briton who in 1873 experimented with selenium solar cells after he discovered that selenium was sensitive to light while he was testing materials for used in underwater cables.
The Tower of Power was designed by William Adams and was presented in a book called “Substitute for Fuel in Tropical Countries”. His design used flat mirrors instead of the parabolic reflector used by Mouchout and powered a steam engine that produced 2.5 horsepower as compared to Mouchout’s 0.5 horsepower. The tower of power design is still in use today.
The first person recorded to directly convert sunlight to electricity was Charles Fritz. His solar cell had an efficiency rate of only 1-2% but is a big milestone in the history of solar energy.
Solar Energy History / The First Solar Energy Company
In 1892 the Solar Motor Co. was formed by Aubrey Eneas of Boston. This was the first solar power company. It was in the 1950’s that this technology finally bore fruit and was developed enough for production of the first efficient solar cells.
Henry Willsie was the first person to successfully use power during the night that was generated during the day. He was the first to recognize and design a device for storing power generated by sunlight.
That all these companies did not succeed is not due to technological failures or bad business decisions but rather to the failure of government and its regulatory bodies to recognize the benefits of solar thermal generating plants to the economy and the environment.
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