Solar energy has been used over the years to serve various functions and in this article, I have provided a detailed history of solar panels with timelines of their evolution. Solar panels have been around for some time now, with their history dating back to the 19th century. The first idea for a solar panel is attributed to the Greeks when Archimedes used a bronze shield to set fire on ships at the coastline by aiming the rays of the sun on them but this is has been disputed.
In 1839 a French scientist discovered the photovoltaic effect when experimenting with a cell made of metal electrodes in a conducting solution. This formed the basis for the invention of a solar panel. Years later an American scientist discovered a working solar cell. This showed that it was possible to convert solar energy into electrical energy. This idea was backed by Einstein in 1905 when he published a paper on the photoelectric effect. This increased the awareness of solar panels which made a lot of investors fund the idea. More adjustments were made to the solar cell. A good example is when NASA launched a satellite that was powered by a photovoltaic solar array. Further developments were made to enable solar panels to power entire homesteads and even industries.
Who first invented solar panels?
A lot of questions have been asked about who invented solar panels and here are some answers. There have been many arguments disproving Archimedes since most say his event; of setting fire on the wooden ships using nothing but a bronze shield and sunlight, lacks a scientific basis. The credit does not belong to a single individual and is instead shared amongst a group of scientists.
The first being a French physicist, who in 1839 discovered the photovoltaic effect. The photovoltaic effect is the creation of current due to exposure to light. However for this to occur, the electrons in metal conductors such as platinum had to be stimulated by light. This created a basis for solar panels since it was proof that solar energy can be converted into electrical energy. In 1873 Willoughby Smith discovered that selenium could be used as a photoconductor. Three years later in 1876 William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day recreated Becquerel’s experiment to show Smith’s results. They went on to publish a paper on the action of light on selenium.
In 1883 Charles Fritz, an American inventor developed the first working selenium solar panel. This helped stimulate the advancement in technology needed to create the solar panel we have today. The modern design of the solar panels used today was created in 1939 by Russel Ohl. He had replaced selenium with silicon making it commercial. Einstein’s paper on the photoelectric effect had made people aware of the solar panels and thus when introduced for commercial use the business flourished. Another important moment in the development of solar panels is when NASA launched the Nimbus satellite which has a 470-wat photovoltaic panel array to power the satellite.
When were solar panels first used in houses?
After solar panels had been successfully used in outer space the next step was to use them in houses and industries. The first building powered by solar energy was constructed by the University of Delaware in 1973. The building was known as Solar One. Solar energy was achieved by using a combination of both thermal and photovoltaic solar power. The building did not have solar panels and instead had solar integrated rooftops. The design on the rooftops is similar to Tesla’s new roof product. The building proved that solar power could indeed be used at home. It was further stimulated by the energy crisis in the 1970s.
History of solar panels timeline
The origin of solar panels is in the 19th century. A group of scientists discovered the photovoltaic effect which is the principle behind solar panels. This is a brief history of solar panels arranged chronologically.
It all began in 1839 when a French physicist called Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect. He did this by conducting experiments with a cell made of metal electrodes in a conducting solution. His observation was that the cells produced more electricity when exposed to light. This formed the basis for solar panels since their main objective is to convert sunlight into electrical energy.
In 1873 an American scientist called Willoughby Smith discovered that selenium could act as a photoconductor. This was years later after Becquerel had discovered the photovoltaic effect so it acted as a credit to his theory.
In 1876 a few later after Smith’s discovery of selenium as a photoconductor two scientists; William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day recreated Becquerel’s experiment and this time used selenium as a conductor which also proved Smith’s theory. The two published a paper and called the action of light on selenium. This was another great breakthrough since by proving that both Smith and Becquerel were right they were a step closer to the invention of solar panels.
A few years later in 1881, Charles Fritts developed the first commercial solar panel. His model seemed very effective as not only worked in continuous and constant sunlight but also when exposed to dim and diffused daylight. Even with this advantage, it could not match the energy produced by coal-fired power plants.
In 1905 Einstein published a paper on the photoelectric effect. This created more awareness and credibility for solar panels. This led to more ideas being developed and years later a better model was designed.
In 1939 Russel Ohl developed a better model of the solar panel and is similar to models used to this day. It was also way better than Fritts’s version.
Another major milestone in the development of solar panels was in 1954 when Bell Labs created a commercially viable silicon solar cell. The cells had a 4 percent efficiency level which was a great step since they could power an electric device for several hours in a day.
In 1957, Mohamed M. Atalla developed silicon surface passivation by thermal oxidation. This was also done at the Bell Labs. This was one of the improvements on the solar panel that helped increase efficiency.
In 1964 solar panels were used in outer space. This was done by NASA when they launched the Nimbus satellite which was powered by solar energy. Its system comprised of a 470-watt photovoltaic solar panel array which allowed it to convert solar energy into electrical energy.
The success of solar panels in outer space led to the development of the first solar-powered building in 1973. The building was constructed by the University of Delaware and was known as Solar One. It did not have solar panels and instead had solar integrated rooftops. The energy was harnessed through a combination of both thermal and photovoltaic solar power.
In 1981 Paul MacCready developed a solar-powered aircraft known as the Solar Challenger. It flew from France to the U.K. across the English Channel. This created a basis for solar-powered aircraft and was seen in 1998 by the Pathfinder when it set a record of 80000 feet.
When did solar panels become popular?
To determine when solar panels became popular there are various factors to consider. Research shows that there are two stages in history when solar panels became popular among people. The first stage in the 1970s and 1980s. At this stage, various technologies were being developed and the efficiency of solar panels had risen from 4 percent to 10 percent. There had also been a lot of milestones that had been achieved with solar power. For example, the solar-powered building was successful. Solar panels had been installed even in the Whitehouse under President Jimmy Carter. Besides the growing popularity of solar panels, there was an energy crisis in the 1970s. This made people open to other sources of energy and was also the time solar energy was blooming. Influential businessmen and women had invested in solar energy. Another reason why solar energy was popular is that it satisfied both scientific and economical needs in society. This is because there were various innovations taking place as the solar-powered aircraft in 1981. It was also economical as it obtained energy readily available in nature.
The second phase in history where solar energy was becoming popular was in the 21st century. This is because over the years various advancements had been made in solar energy. This had greatly increased the efficiency of the solar panels that by the start of the century the efficiency was over 30 percent. As the inventions grew the cost of using solar energy was lowered which greatly increased their popularity. For example in 2005 solar cells had increased by a great margin and residential solar power became a common thing due to DIY solar panels. New elements were discovered which increased the efficiency of the solar panels. Other inventions made solar energy even more popular. For example, in 2016 Bertrand Piccard completed the first zero-emissions flight around the world. He did this using the Solar Impulse, which is considered the largest and most powerful solar-powered plane.
From the information above it is clear that solar energy has come a long way in the past 300 years. There have been various developments and advancements to make it as efficient as it is today.
My name is Alex Landry and I am an experienced solar PV engineer and an editor here at Tru Solar Score. I am an accomplished solar PV expert with over 12 years of installing off-grid solar systems in various states in the US. Between 2015 and 2019, I led a small team of energy audit analysts for a company based out of Oregon. I currently run this site full-time and when I am not testing a new solar PV product in the market, I am offering customized consulting on solar systems installations. You can reach me directly using firstname.lastname@example.org