If you are under the impression that solar technology is a relatively new invention then sadly no one told you about the French Inventor Augustin Mouchot who demonstrated his work back in 1878.
Back in 1871 Inventor Mouchot was funded by the Indre-et-Loire General Council to develop a solar generator experiment at the Tours library. He was able to present the data of his designs to the Academy of Sciences in 1875. Augustin Mouchot showed that a stream of 140 liters would flow in optimal sunshine so he set out to build his design.
“One must not believe, despite the silence of modern writings, that the idea of using solar heat for mechanical operations is recent. On the contrary, one must recognize that this idea is very ancient and its slow development across the centuries it has given birth to various curious devices.”— Augustin Bernard Mouchot said at the Universal Exposition in Paris, France 1878.
Mouchot was correct when he said that solar technology wasn’t a new thing, humans had been using solar energy for hundreds of years. In the 7th century, we were able to magnify the power of the sun in order to create fires.
In 1767, the first Solar Oven was invented. This device could use the sun’s energy to heat up meals and some of this technology is still used today especially in more remote areas of the world. Credit for the first solar oven goes to Swiss physicist Horace de Saussure.
French physicist Edmund Becquerel discovered the Photovoltaic effect in 1839 at the age of 19. He figured out that voltage is created when a material is exposed to sunlight which is the current foundation for solar power. Then in 1873 English engineer Willoughby Smith found out the selenium was super photo conductive.
Building on that discovery professor William Grylls Adams and his student Richard Evans Day got to work in 1876 and were the first to observe the electrical currents produced by sunlight. The inventors found a way to use two electrodes on a selenium plate which would produce electricity when it was in the sunlight.
Augustin Mouchot returned to France in 1878 with is assistant Abel Pifre and they were able to show people at the Universal Exhibition in Paris how concentrating solar heat would produce a steady stream of electricity.
Unfortunately for solar technology coal prices plummeted and it because cheaper to burn fossil fuels for electricity than it was to fund further solar technology research. The French government announced that solar energy was uneconomical and ended Mouchot’s funding for his research.
As you can see in the chart above fossil fuels have dominated the electrical market ever since that time. Burning these fuels may have seemed like a good decision in the 1900’s but we have since learned that we are using up this finite resource and adding unneeded pollution in the air as well.
“Eventually industry will no longer find in Europe the resources to satisfy its prodigious expansion… Coal will undoubtedly be used up. What will industry do then?” — said Augustin Bernard Mouchot, after he demonstrated an early industrial application of solar thermal energy in 1880.
Solar technology research slowed significantly for a very long time, but there were still a few notable breakthroughs that helped us get to where we are today. In 1883, Charles Fritts, a U.S. inventor came up with a plan to create solar cells.
Albert Einstein also saw the value in solar technology and in 1905 he worked on the photoelectric effect. He formed a theory on the photons of light where he strives to use that light to “liberate” the electrons on a metal surface. 16 years later in 1921 he submitted a paper of his research and even got a Nobel Prize for his work.
Solar cell technology was pioneered by Jan Czochralski from Poland who found a way to grow a single crystal layer of silicon in 1918.
In 1954, one of the biggest breakthroughs in solar cell technology took place when Gerald Peterson, Calvin Fuller, and David Chapin built the first device that took sunlight and turned it directly into electrical power in the Bell Labs. They were even able to improve their design over time bringing the efficiency from 4% to 11%.
It seems like we need to focus on long-term solutions even if there isn’t short term profits or benefits. Can you imagine what our world would be like if we had simply put more of our energy into solar technology over 100 years ago?