Solar energy is a hot topic these days, as the focus of the world turns more and more to finding ways to make use of renewable energy resources. But while some people might think that using solar energy is a new concept, the history of solar energy runs back hundreds of years. So, to better understand what people have done with solar energy in history, let’s take a look back.
1767: The Solar Cooker
One of the first new technologies to show up in the history of solar energy was the solar cooker, invented by Horace de Saussure, a Swiss naturalist, in 1767. The solar cooker is a simple device, consisting of a box with the top end transparent, and some way of reflecting extra energy into the top of the box, usually a shiny metal sheet. This heats the air in the box to temperatures of up to 300 degrees. This early invention has come into use in modern times, particularly in areas where firewood is scarce.
1860: A Solar Motor
Nearly 100 years after Saussure developed his solar cooker we come to the next step in the history of solar energy, the development of a motor that ran from solar power. The inventor, Auguste Mouchout, was a mathematics expert in France who was part of a rare breed of individual so early in the Industrial Revolution, someone who was concerned about using up fossil fuels too quickly. His idea was remarkably similar to the solar cooker, using an iron cauldron surrounded by glass to absorb and heat water using solar energy, powering a steam motor. While his invention worked well, it wasn’t as cost-effective as coal, so it didn’t catch on.
1883: The Photovoltaic Cell
Although it was observed in the 1830s that when the sun hit certain materials, a small electrical charge could result, the photovoltaic cell didn’t make its appearance in the history of solar energy until over 20 years after Mouchout’s solar-powered motor. Using selenium with a thin layer of gold, Charles Fritts made the first photovoltaic cell, which was terribly inefficient, and thus not very useful at first.
It wasn’t until later in the history of solar energy, in 1954, that Bell Laboratories discovered that silicon with certain impurities did create a practical photovoltaic cell. From that point on, the history of solar energy entered the modern age, with more innovations and more frequent improvements in the efficiency of solar energy. However, these three early inventions paved the way for the later innovations, and should be considered important in the history of solar energy.