A Brief History of Solar Power

People tend to talk about solar power as though it is a newfangled concept, but in reality, humans have been using solar power in some form or fashion since as early as the 7th century BC! Even solenoid cells (the cells which make up the glimmering surfaces of today’s solar panels) have been around for almost 70 years now. The fact of the matter is that solar power is a tried-and-true energy solution that has been part of our world for quite some time. Here at Solar Bear Tampa, we thought it might be nice to share a quick run-down of the history of solar power with you. 

Before the solenoid cell (7th Century BC – 1800s)

The earliest known instance of people converting sunlight into energy is the 7th century BC, when humans began to use glass and other magnifying materials to concentrate sunlight enough to start a fire in some kindling. If you’re picturing some kid burning up ants with a magnifying glass at recess, you’re on the right track. Then, a few centuries later, in the 3rd century BC, the Greeks, Romans, and the Chinese used a similar method to light torches, only they used refracted sunlight from mirrors. Throughout the Americas, native cultures built homes out of adobe and clay, with the express purpose of capturing the sun’s warmth throughout the day in order to keep themselves warm at night. 

Solar in the industrial age (1839 – the 1900s)

In the early 1800s, society became interested in alternate sources of power. Steamboats were invented. Electricity was discovered. And in 1839, a Frenchman named Edmond Becquerel discovered solar power as we know it today. Rather, he discovered the “photovoltaic effect,” which is the process by which modern solar panels store solar energy. Another French inventor, a mathematician named Augustin Mouchot, felt inspired by Becquerel’s work, and by the 1860s, had registered multiple patents for solar-powered engines. Soon, American engineers followed suit, with the idea of solar power gaining popularity overseas into the 1880s. A New York inventor, Charles Fritts, created the first solar cell using gold-coated selenium in 1883, only this cell produced but a fraction of the power modern solar cells can generate today. Quickly thereafter came patents for more solar cells, thermal batteries (the predecessor of the modern-day solar batteries that make long-term solar power possible), thermal generators, and so forth, in countries all over the world. Despite these many advances, solar power wouldn’t really shine again until decades later. 

The solenoid cell is invented (1954) 

Realizing the conductive limitations of Selenium-based solar cells, in the 1950s, Bell Laboratories started to experiment with silicone-based solar cells. They found that thanks to a higher conduction rate, these silicone-based cells could produce 6 times the power of the original selenium solar cells. This breakthrough in photovoltaic (PV) technology would be the catalyst for all the solar power innovations we know and love today. Soon after they developed the new solenoid cell, the scientists at Bell built the first solar panels. 

Solar panels gain popularity (1960s – 1990s)

Though the geniuses at Bell Labs had cracked the code on efficient solar power, it was still very cost-prohibitive, and could only be used in projects with heavy funding. In 1958, NASA and other space exploration agencies around the world began to power their satellites with solar panels. In 1973, the University of Delaware built the first solar building, called “Solar One,” which ran entirely off solar power thanks to solenoid cells built directly into the building. Between 1957 and 1968, Hoffman Electronics improved solar cell conversion even more, more than doubling the amount of power that could be derived from each new solenoid cell. In the 80s and 90s the first solar aircraft and spacecraft were built, and the efficiency of solar cells was improved even further. All these advances meant more public awareness of solar power, and more access to solar power thanks to cheaper prices. 

Solar power today

All this history brings us to today—the golden age of solar as we know it thus far. The US government has incentivized green energy alternatives like solar, and individual states, like Florida, even offer tax deductions for homes that incorporate solar power into their energy plans. It is easier and more affordable than ever to switch to solar. Call us at Solar Bear Tampa today, and we’ll get you an estimate.