The History of Solar

Solar technology isn’t new. Its history spans from the 7th Century B.C. to today. We started out concentrating the sun’s heat with glass and mirrors to light fires. Today, we have everything from solar-powered buildings to solarpowered vehicles. Here you can learn more about the milestones in the historical development of solar technology, century by century, and year by year. You can also glimpse the future.

This timeline lists the milestones in the historical development of solar technology from 1767 to 1891.

1767 - Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure was credited with building the world’s first solar collector, later used by Sir John Herschel to cook food during his South Africa expedition in the 1830s.

1816 - On September 27, 1816, Robert Stirling applied for a patent for his economiser at the Chancery in Edinburgh, Scotland. By trade, Robert Stirling was actually a minister in the Church of Scotland and he continued to give services until he was eighty-six years old! But, in his spare time, he built heat engines in his home workshop. Lord Kelvin used one of the working models during some of his university classes. This engine was later used in the dish/Stirling system, a solar thermal electric technology that concentrates the sun’s thermal energy in order to produce power.

1839 - French scientist Edmond Becquerel discovers the photovoltaic effect while experimenting with an electrolytic cell made up of two metal electrodes placed in an electricity-conducting solution—electricity-generation increased when exposed to light.

1860s - French mathematician August Mouchet proposed an idea for solar-powered steam engines. In the following two decades, he and his assistant, Abel Pifre, constructed the first solar powered engines and used them for a variety of applications. These engines became the predecessors of modern parabolic dish collectors.

1880 - Samuel P. Langley, invents the bolometer, which is used to measure light from the faintest stars and the sun’s heat rays. It consists of a fine wire connected to an electric circuit. When radiation falls on the wire, it becomes very slightly warmer. This increases the electrical resistance of the wire.

1905 - Albert Einstein published his paper on the photoelectric effect (along with a paper on his theory of relativity).

1947 - Passive solar buildings in the United States were in such demand, as a result of scarce energy during the prolonged W.W.II, that Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company published a book entitled Your Solar House, which profiled forty-nine of the nation’s greatest solar architects.

1954 - Photovoltaic technology is born in the United States when Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson develop the silicon photovoltaic (PV) cell at Bell Labs—the first solar cell capable of converting enough of the sun’s energy into power to run everyday electrical equipment. Bell Telephone Laboratories produced a silicon solar cell with 4% efficiency and later achieved 11% efficiency.

1955 - Western Electric began to sell commercial licenses for silicon photovoltaic (PV) technologies. Early successful products included PV-powered dollar bill changers and devices that decoded computer punch cards and tape.

1958 - The Vanguard I space satellite used a small (less than one watt) array to power its radios. Later that year, Explorer III, Vanguard II, and Sputnik-3 were launched with PV-powered systems on board. Despite faltering attempts to commercialize the silicon solar cell in the 1950s and 60s, it was used successfully in powering satellites. It became the accepted energy source for space applications and remains so today.

1963 - Japan installs a 242-watt, photovoltaic array on a lighthouse, the world’s largest array at that time.

1964 - NASA launches the first Nimbus spacecraft—a satellite powered by a 470-watt photovoltaic array.

1977 - Total photovoltaic manufacturing production exceeds 500 kilowatts.

1980 - ARCO Solar becomes the first company to produce more than 1 megawatt of photovoltaic modules in one year.

1982 - The first, photovoltaic megawatt-scale power station goes on-line in Hisperia, California. It has a 1-megawatt capacity system, developed by ARCO Solar, with modules on 108 dual-axis trackers.

1991 - President George Bush redesignates the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Research Institute as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

1998 - The remote-controlled, solar-powered aircraft, “Pathfinder” sets an altitude record, 80,000 feet, on its 39th consecutive flight on August 6, in Monrovia, California. This altitude is higher than any prop-driven aircraft thus far.

2000 - First Solar begins production in Perrysburg, Ohio, at the world’s largest photovoltaic manufacturing plant with an estimated capacity of producing enough solar panels each year to generate 100 megawatts of power.

2002 - The largest solar power facility in the Northwest—the 38.7-kilowatt White Bluffs Solar Station—goes online in Richland, Washington.