Highlights from the History of Solar Power

Solar Energy History in the 20th Century

These are some of the important developments in the history of solar power from 1900 to the 1970's. It's amazing how far we've come, and yet how much further there is to go!


history of solar power

The history of solar energy is still being written today, as our urgent need for more sustainable and renewable forms of energy requires each of us to do whatever we can to create a healthier future for our Earth and our children.

As ongoing climate changes remind us on a daily basis that we need to make changes in how we are living, this can serve as a positive motivation to help us step up our search for affordable solar power and alternative energy sources.

We are grateful to those brilliant inventors and scientists that produced some of the breakthroughs that have developed into the solar energy systems we are using today!

Breakthroughs in Solar Energy History

  • 1905 - Albert Einstein published a paper on the photoelectric effect, and also his groundbreaking theory of relativity.

  • 1908 - William Bailey from Carnegie Steel created a solar collector to concentrate the sun's energy, using an insulated box with copper coils.

  • 1916 - Robert Millikan proved the existence of the photoelectric effect.

  • 1932 - The photoelectric effect in cadmium sulfide is discovered.

  • 1947 - Passive solar building in the United States were in such demand, as a result of scarce energy during WWII, that Libbey-Owens-Ford Glass Company published a book entitled Your Solar House, which profiled several of the nation's greatest solar architects.

  • 1954 - Bell Labs produces the first true photovoltaic cell. The PV cell had an efficiency of 4% (11% in later experiments).

  • 1955 - Western Electric began to sell commercial licenses for silicon photovoltaic technologies.

  • Mid-1950's - The very first solar heated commercial office building was created by architect Frank Brdigers using passive solar technology. Amazingly, his system is still in operation today, and the building is now part of the National Historic Register!

  • 1958 - The historic Vanguard I space satellite is launched, which powers its radios with a small solar powered array. That's not it's only the only notable accomplishment. This satellite is still in orbit today! It also was the first satellite to make an earth science discovery, by discovering the Van Allen radiation belt.

    Shortly after this time, three other satellites were launched into space which that used photovoltaic systems to power some of their equipment.

    The Explorer III decayed just six months after it was launched, but Sputnik 3 lasted for almost two years, and the Vanguard II is still in orbit today!.

  • 1960 - Hoffman Electronics achieves 14% efficient PV cells.

  • 1962 - Bell Telephone Laboratories launches Telstar, the world's first telecommunication satellite. The Telstar was able to transmit faxes, phone calls and even television images through space, including the world's first live transatlantictelvision broadcast. The Telstar used a 14 watt photovoltaic system.

  • 1960's - NASA launches several more satellites with PV systems installed. The Nimbus spacecraft uses a larger and more complex PV array with a 470 watt capability.

  • 1970's - This decade was an important one in the history of solar power, as we saw a huge growth in the use of solar PV cells around the world. The NASA Lewis Research Center began installing 83 photovoltaic power systems on every continent except Antarctica. The University of Delaware produced the world's first PV powered home in 1973.

These are just a few of the higlights of what we know about the history of solar power from 1900-1970's. For more information on recent solar energy history, please see History of Solar Energy from 1980's to the Present.


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