There’s a long history behind photovoltaics (PV) that brought the concept of solar energy to success, though solar energy has found a dynamic and established role in today’s clean energy economy. With the way the cost of solar has decreased in the past decade, it’s easy to forget that going solar had a completely different face and figure just 15 years ago. Let’s go back to the origins of solar PV a few centuries ago and explore the history of solar energy and silicon solar technology.
In theory, solar energy was used by humans as early as the 7th century B.C. when history tells us that humans used sunlight to light fires with magnifying glass materials. Later, in the 3rd century B.C., the Greeks and Romans were known to harness solar power with mirrors to light torches for religious ceremonies. These mirrors became a normalized tool referred to as “burning mirrors.” Chinese civilization documented the use of mirrors for the same purpose later in 20 A.D.
Another early use for solar energy that is still popular today was the concept of “sunrooms”, which used massive windows to direct sunlight into one concentrated area. Later in the 1200s A.D., ancestors to the Pueblo Native Americans known as the Anasazi situated themselves in south-facing abodes on cliffs to capture the sun’s warmth during the cold winter months.
In the late 1700s and 1800s, researchers and scientists had success using sunlight to power ovens for long journeys. They also gathered the power of the sun to produce solar-powered steamboats. Ultimately, it’s clear that even thousands of years before the era of solar panels, the concept of manipulating the power of the sun was common knowledge.
The development of solar panel technology was an iterative one that took a number of contributions from various scientists. Some people credit the invention of the solar cell to French scientist Edmond Becquerel, who determined light could increase electricity generation when two metal electrodes were placed into a conducting solution. This breakthrough, known as the “photovoltaic effect” was influential in later PV developments with the element selenium.
In 1873, Willoughby Smith discovered that selenium had photoconductive potential, leading to William Grylls Adams’ and Richard Evans Day’s 1876 discovery that selenium creates electricity when exposed to sunlight. A few years later in 1883, Charles Fritts actually produced the first solar cells made from selenium wafers – the reason some historians credit Fritts with the actual invention of solar cells.
However, solar cells as we know them today are made with silicon, not selenium. Therefore, some consider the true invention of solar panels to be tied to Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson’s creation of the silicon photovoltaic (PV) cell at Bell Labs in 1954. Many argue that this event marks the true invention of PV technology because it was the first instance of a solar technology that could actually power an electric device for several hours of a day. The first-ever silicon solar cell could convert sunlight at four percent efficiency, less than a quarter of what modern cells are capable of.
Regardless of why solar power is interesting to you, there is a robust and fascinating history behind solar’s rise to relevant status. Solar has a long list of meanings in today’s day and age. It spans various industries and contributes power to hundreds of different gadgets and technologies. Learn just how much solar can save you – try our Solar Calculator to get instant estimates for a solar installation and the energy savings you could generate. If you’re ready to start comparing bids from vetted installers in your area, register your property on the EnergySage Solar Marketplace.