What is the History of Solar Energy?

Dee Saale
Dee Saale

Humans have been trying to figure out ways to capture light and heat from the sun’s rays for thousands of years. The history of solar energy is quite long, starting in the 600s BC and continuing through current times. There is no doubt that the history of solar energy will not end any time soon. Since only a small portion of the sun’s energy is used, even now, new discoveries and new ways to harness the sun’s energy will push the solar energy timeline well into the future.

Modern solar panels pointed at the sun to absorb solar energy.
Modern solar panels pointed at the sun to absorb solar energy.

Early on, humans discovered ways to direct the sun’s rays and aim them at an intended source. This early history of solar energy was first seen when humans used magnifying glasses in the 600s BC to burn ants. Later, in the 200s BC the Greeks and Romans used mirrors to refract the sun’s rays in order to light their torches for their religious temples.

By 100 BC, solar energy was rumored to have been used when the Greeks reflected shields made of bronze on Roman ships, causing them to catch on fire. Although this feat may only be a myth, it was recreated by several scientists, including Greek engineer, Anthemius of Tralles. As early as 600 AD, he reportedly used “burning glasses” and gave the myth some validity. He recorded his findings in his treatise entitled Mechanical Paradoxes. Throughout the next 1300 years, there are repeated reports of solar energy being used to heat homes, bath houses, and public buildings.

The history of solar energy continues on through the 1700s and 1800s. During that time period, people were interested in improving the technology used to capture the sun’s energy. For example, in 1767, a scientist from Switzerland, Horace de Saussure, invented a solar collector that was later used to heat food for adventurers on expeditions. By 1816, Robert Stirling had invented an engine that would later be used to convert the sun’s energy into electrical power. The rest of the 1800s were filled with scientists developing ways to harness more of the sun’s energy and creating stronger sources of electricity from that energy.

By the 1900s, the photoelectric and photovoltaic effects were at the center of the scientific world. The history of solar energy began to be mainstream. In fact, by 1940s one of the most popular books was printed, entitled Your Solar Home. It directed people to the top solar architects and told them how they could have a solar home. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, photovoltaic cells became more efficient. By 1977, the United States had created a new government facility dedicated to capturing the sun’s energy and converting it into electricity, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

The 1980s were an important time in the history of solar energy. In 1981, scientists created the first solar powered airplane. Then, in 1982, the first solar powered car was driven across Australia in record time. In addition, photovoltaic production continued to increase exponentially during the 1980s.

The 1990s were times of increased scientific discovery. Solar dishes and more efficient solar cells were invented. A look at the history of solar energy also shows that rooftop solar power became more popular over the course of the 1990s. By 2001, rooftop systems could be purchased at local hardware stores, making solar energy even more common. By 2000, gas stations, railroads, and other companies began to use solar energy in their buildings and daily activities. As technology becomes more sophisticated, solar energy will continue to transform how people design, build, work, and live their daily lives.

Dee Saale
Dee Saale

Dee is a freelance writer based in Colorado. She has a B.A. in English Literature, as well as a law degree. Dee is especially interested in topics relating to medicine, legal issues, and home improvement, which are her specialty when contributing to wiseGEEK.

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Discussion Comments


I didn't know people had been harnessing solar energy since the 600s BC, as mentioned in the article. Although, roasting ants with magnifying glasses may not be the best way to use solar energy.

Seriously, it is remarkable that the idea of controlling a bit of the sun's power has been around so long. That makes me wonder why the use of solar energy hasn't progressed more than it has today.

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