The History of Solar Panels
We tend to take things like computers, lightbulbs, and solar panels for granted. I use my computer every day without thinking about how it came to be or how it actually works. I see solar panels every day without realizing how many people worked to create their magic, including people from more than two thousand years ago.
The first recorded instance of humans using solar energy was around 700 BC. We realized that the light of the sun could be intensified–using magnifying glasses and mirrors–to the point where the beam of light could ignite a fire. Eight centuries later, Romans used the sun to create sunrooms–rooms which reflected and contained the light of the sun in order to perpetuate light and warmth–in their baths. When the Roman Empire fell, Western civilization lost the desire and knowledge to research solar energy (although some early Native Americans used similar technology to the Romans to create their own sunrooms).
After the Dark Ages, around 1800, solar energy began to reemerge. This time, we had learned to use it to power steamboats. But as technology advanced through the Industrial Revolution, this technology soon became obsolete. Fortunately, along with these advancements came many in the field of solar energy. Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel was the first to discover that shining light on certain materials produced electricity in 1839 (which is now known as the photoelectric effect); in 1881, Charles Fritts created the first commercial solar panel from selenium; and in 1905, Einstein published the first paper on the photoelectric effect. After these scientific discoveries were all made, it wasn’t long before commercialization and optimization really took flight.
1939 brought Russell Ohl and the design of the silicon solar cell that is used in solar panels today; 1954 brought the commercialization of said solar cell. 1964 brought the first satellite powered exclusively by solar energy (Nimbus, launched by NASA). 1974 brought the US energy crisis and the federal government’s encouragement towards many types of renewable energy, especially solar power. In the past few years, we’ve seen myriad improvements–including discoveries on materials used in the panels, designs of solar cells, and specific angles at which the solar panels should be angled–all of which work together to give us the solar panels we have today. From the initial, 3000-years-ago power of a magnifying glass the size of a solar panel, which would be about 24W, we have improved to 250W.