The History of Solar Power: Going Back to the Beginning

History of Solar Power

Solar power, the technology of harnessing energy from the sun, has a fascinating history that spans millennia. From ancient civilisations recognising the sun’s importance to the cutting-edge technologies of today, the history of solar power is a testament to human ingenuity and our enduring quest for sustainable energy.

Ancient Beginnings

The history of solar power begins in ancient times, where early civilisations revered the sun as a powerful deity. The Ancient Greeks and Romans were among the first to harness solar energy in practical ways. They designed their homes and buildings to capture the sun’s warmth during winter, a practice known as passive solar heating. This early use of solar design principles laid the groundwork for future innovations.

The Renaissance and Beyond

During the Renaissance, scientific inquiry into the nature of light and energy began to flourish. In 1767, Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure invented the first solar collector, a primitive solar oven. This device used glass boxes to trap heat from the sun, reaching temperatures sufficient to cook food. This invention marked an important milestone in the history of solar power, demonstrating the potential of solar energy for practical applications.

The 19th Century: The Birth of Photovoltaics

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The 19th century saw significant advancements in understanding the principles of solar energy. In 1839, French physicist Alexandre Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect, the underlying principle of solar panels. He found that certain materials could generate an electric current when exposed to light. This discovery was crucial, although practical applications were still decades away.

Later in the century, inventors such as Augustin Mouchot and John Ericsson began developing solar-powered engines. Mouchot’s work in France led to the creation of a solar-powered steam engine, which he demonstrated at the 1878 Universal Exhibition in Paris. Meanwhile, Ericsson, a Swedish-American inventor, designed a solar-powered engine in the United States, showcasing the global interest in solar technologies.

The Early 20th Century: Exploring Solar Thermal

The early 20th century continued to see innovations in solar power. American engineer Frank Shuman made significant strides with solar thermal energy. In 1913, he built a large-scale solar thermal power plant in Maadi, Egypt. Shuman’s plant used parabolic troughs to concentrate sunlight, generating steam to power a water pump. This project was an early precursor to modern solar thermal power plants.

Post-World War II: The Rise of Photovoltaic Technology


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The mid-20th century marked a turning point in the history of solar power with the development of silicon photovoltaic (PV) cells. In 1954, Bell Laboratories in the United States developed the first practical silicon solar cell, achieving 6% efficiency. This breakthrough paved the way for the modern solar industry.

The space race of the 1950s and 60s provided further impetus for solar technology. Photovoltaic cells were ideal for powering satellites, leading to rapid advancements in efficiency and reliability. By the 1970s, the oil crisis prompted a renewed interest in alternative energy sources, including solar power. Governments and private companies began investing in solar research and development, leading to improved technologies and reduced costs.


The Late 20th and Early 21st Century: Solar Power Goes Mainstream

The late 20th century and early 21st century witnessed exponential growth in the solar power industry. Advances in materials science and manufacturing techniques dramatically reduced the cost of solar panels, making solar energy more accessible. Germany, Japan, and the United States led the way in adopting solar power, driven by supportive policies and incentives.

In recent decades, large-scale solar farms have proliferated worldwide, and solar panels have become a common sight on residential rooftops. Innovations in energy storage and smart grid technology have further enhanced the viability of solar power, addressing the issue of intermittency and enabling more efficient energy management.

The Future of Solar Power

The history of solar power is a story of continuous innovation and adaptation. As we face the urgent challenge of climate change, solar energy stands as a beacon of hope. With ongoing research and development, the efficiency of solar panels continues to improve, and new technologies such as perovskite cells and solar windows promise even greater advancements.

How Sunpower Services Can Help You

The history of solar power is a testament to human creativity and determination. From ancient sun worshippers to modern solar engineers, the journey of harnessing the sun’s energy has been long and remarkable. As we look to the future, solar power will undoubtedly play a crucial role in building a sustainable and resilient energy system for generations to come.


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All information correct as of:  3rd July 2024.

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