Solar History

   In 1912, these parabolic solar collectors, built on a small farming community on the Nile River 15 miles south of Cairo, Egypt, were developed by a Philadelphia inventor, entrepreneur, and solar visionary named Frank Shuman. Each collector was 204 feet in length, 13 feet in width and was fitted with a mechanical tracker which kept it automatically tilted to appropriately absorb the sun.

The heat collected by these reflectors was used to produce steam to power a series of large water pumps. Together they produced the equivalent of 55 horsepower and were capable of pumping an astonishing 6000 gallons of water per minute, bringing irrigation water to vast areas of arid desert land.

After the war, as the world discovered the vast oil fields in Iraq, Iran, and Venezuela, the allure of limitless solar energy was diminished and Shuman returned to his hometown of Tacony, in Pennsylvania, never to realize his dreams and visions.

Solar radiation, an emission-free and inexhaustible supply of energy, is the most abundant of all known energy sources in the world. Utilizing solar technology and other forms of renewable energy helps to reduce reliance on fossil fuels for energy production, thus directly reducing CO 2 emissions which contribute to artificial climate change and global warming.

A story thousands of years in the making, solar energy has endured the test of time. Man has used solar power in it's passive form to dry food and clothing and to warm dwellings for millenia. The sun was (and still is) the most powerful and abundant form of natural energy in existence.

In 40 minutes the amount of sunlight that strikes the earth has the potential to power every electrical need on the planet... for a year!

Learning to capture and use solar energy in more sophisticated ways began around 700 BC. Here's the Solar Energy History story.

7th Century B.C.

Around 700 BC it was discovered that a ray of sun directed through a piece of glass could start a fire if the ray fell upon something flammable.

3rd Century B.C.

By 3rd century BC, Greeks and Romans were reflecting the sun's rays from mirrors to set ceremonial torches alight.

2nd Century B.C.

The story goes that in 2nd century BC, Archimedes, using bronze shields, reflected a beam of sun onto a troublesome Roman wooden ship in the harbour and set it ablaze. Whether the story is true or not it has since been proved that it can be done.

For the next thousand or so years man was content to use the power of the sun for the purposes of starting fire , passively warming homes and drying food and skins.

After all it would be another two thousand years or so before the first light bulb would make an appearance and the need for a blender was inconceivable.

Over these early years in Solar Energy History civilizations learned to orient homes and communities to face the sun (south) and take best advantage of it's warmth. The low hanging sun would warm the adobe or stone front of the building in winter and radiate it's heat into the dwelling well into the evening. In summer the shade of an overhang would prevent the sun (which tracks high overhead in summer) would shade the entrance and keep it cool.

The Anasazi cliff dwellings (pictured above) took advantage of passive solar concepts. During winter, when the sun makes a low sweep across the southern sky, it would be able to enter deep into the cave, warming all the surfaces.

1st to 4th Century A.D.

1st to 4th Century Romans used passive solar to heat bath houses. Glass windows facing the sun allowed the sun's rays to penetrate and warm the bathhouse, then prevented it from escaping.

6th Century A.D.

So popular were sun rooms by 6th century AD that Justinian's Sun-Right Law provided for all buildings to have a right to the sun's rays.

The law prevented new structures from blocking the path of sunlight to an existing building.

Passive solar heating was becoming better understood and for the next several hundred years sun rooms appeared on the south facing side of many Roman residences.

The heat collected in the glass sun room was allowed in to warm the home when the doors between the sun room and home were opened.

Also around this time from 700 AD the Anasazi's were building adobe dwellings almost always oriented toward the sun to take best advantage of it's warmth in winter.

1050 to 1300 A.D.

Around 1050 AD to 1300 is the period of the Anasazi cliff dwellings. Built in South facing cliffs with natural stone overhangs the communities were warmed in winter by the low hanging sun but the stone overhang provided much needed shade on hot summer days.

Solar Energy History - Discovery Phase 1700's

1767 saw the first major solar discovery since a flame had been kindled with the sun's energy.

French/Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure, in the mid 1700's after numerous tests, prototypes and adjustments, fashioned the first solar cooker.

Using a wooden box with a black cork bottom and placing three separate sheets of glass over it and finally insulating it, he was able to maintain an internal temperature of 230 degrees F. Easily hot enough to boil water and cook a meal!

Today's solar cookers largely resemble Saussure's invention.


By the 1800's, discoveries were being unearthed at a faster rate. By the latter part of the decade as little as three years would pass between discoveries.

The photovoltaic ~ photo (light) voltaic (power) ~ effect was discovered in 1839 by Edmond Becquerel a French Scientist. The first to discover that light intensified the amount of electricity generated between two electrodes.

From 1860's to 1880's the first solar powered engines were produced and put to use.

1873 Willoughby Smith discovered the photoconductive properties of selenium a new turn, in the history of solar power.

1883 an American inventor had figured out how to produce a selenium

Solar Power Cell

1891 saw the first commercial solar water heater patented by Clarence Kemp an inventor from Baltimore.

Up to the end of the 1800s Solar Energy History had made a moderate amount of progress over a great deal of time.

The pace began to really pick up in the 1900's



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