As far back as the 5th century BC, the Greeks were building their homes in grid patterns to utilize solar power. It was such an accepted technology that the playwright Aeschylus wrote that only primitives “lacked knowledge of houses turned to face the winter sun, dwelling beneath the ground like swarming ants in sunless caves.” Nonetheless, it still took over 2300 years for us to see solar powered machines, but since then the progress has been pretty dramatic. To see for yourself, check out our pictorial history.
1865- The first solar powered engine
Auguste Mouchout was the first man to patent a design for an engine running on solar energy. Worried about his country’s dependence on coal, he received funds from the French government to research solar power. By 1865 he designed a device, which could turn solar energy into mechanical steam power and operate a steam engine. He is quoted as saying “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?” Despite his success, the French government disagreed and ended his funding in 1878.
Frank Shuman built the world’s first solar thermal power station in Meadi, Egypt. Shuman’s plant used parabolic troughs to power a 60-70 horsepower engine, which pumped 6,000 gallons of water per minute from the Nile River to adjacent cotton fields.
1954- The first practical solar panel
In 1954, Calvin Fuller, Gerald Pearson and Daryl Chaplin of Bell Laboratories accidentally discovered the use of silicon as a semi-conductor, which led to the construction of a solar panel with an efficiency rate of 6%. In doing so, they created the first practical means of collecting energy from the sun and turning it into a current of electricity.
1958- The first solar powered satellite
The Vanguard 1 1958-Beta 2 was the fourth artificial satellite launched and the first to be solar powered. Although communication with it was lost in 1964, it remains the oldest manmade satellite still in orbit. It contains a 10 mW, 108 MHz transmitter powered by a mercury battery and a 5 mW, 108.03 MHz transmitter powered by six solar cells mounted on its body.
1960-The first solar powered car
In 1960, Dr Charles Alexander Escoffery modified a 1912 Baker electric car with 10,000 silicon solar panels on the roof. The energy harnessed from the sun was stored in batteries. After sitting in the sun for 8 to 10 hours, the car was ready to roll for one hour, topping out at 20 miles per hour.
1997- The first solar powered mobile phone
Nokia was the first manufacturer to introduce a solar powered mobile phone. The Nokia 1610 Plus had a solar battery, which could be charged with a standard charger or by being placed in the sun.
2010- The first solar powered spacecraft
Japan launched the IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) aboard an H-IIA rocket in May 2010. It gathered energy for propulsion from sunlight pressure (photons) by means of a square membrane measuring 20 meters diagonally. On December 8, 2010, IKAROS passed by Venus at about 80,800 km distance, successfully completing its planned mission.
If solar technology can evolve from solar powered motors to spacecraft in less than 150 years, just imagine what we’ll see in the future. While predicting tomorrow’s world is always a challenge, we’d love to hear your thoughts on where solar technology is headed this century. So dust off your crystal ball and let us know in the comments below.