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When Were Solar Panels Invented

By Benjamin Strusnik February 14, 2022

When Were Solar Panels Invented

Solar panels are an excellent example of the almost limitless potential to produce power when science and the natural world meet. For a solid solar foundation, let's look at the discovery, innovation, and progress made over the years.

Solar panels work by converting the energy of the sun into usable electricity, but it’s taken thousands of years for us to learn how to harness the power of the sun.

We’re going on a thousand-year journey to uncover the history of solar panels and find out when they were invented.

Solar Energy in Antiquity

The sun has been revered as a powerful source of energy and inspiration since the beginning of humanity. But the earliest references to solar power dates back to the 7th Century B.C.

From focusing the sun's rays for fire to bouncing it off mirrors to light sacred torches, researchers and scientists successfully used sunlight to power ovens for voyages in the late 1700s and 1800s.

But from sun-rooms to solar beams, solar cell technology took a slightly more scientific road to our rooftops. To get a tad technical about it, let’s take a look at some facts about solar panels.

history of solar panels

1767

Horace-Benedict de Saussure constructed the world’s first solar collector cell after experiments with thermal power.

Next? The Industrial Revolution.

1839

The young physicist, Edmond Becquerel, discovered the photovoltaic effect. This effect is the process of producing an electric current or voltage in response to exposure to light or radiant energy.

Becquerel noticed an electrical current when he exposed metal plates in a solution to uneven solar radiation - the start of scientific solar.

1873

Willoughby Smith, an English engineer, discovers the photoconductive potential of selenium - a crucial metal used in the production of solar cells.

1876

William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Days applied Becquerel's photovoltaic principle to selenium, noting electricity produced when selenium came into contact with light.

1883

Inventor Charles Fritts coated selenium with a fine layer of gold to create the first solar cell, starting at a minute yet marvelous energy conversion rate of about 1 percent.

1884

Charles Fritts installed the first solar panels on a New York City rooftop.

1888

U.S Inventors file for patents on solar-powered devices.

In the same year, Russian scientist Aleksandr Stoletov created the first photoelectric solar cell, based on an observation by German physicist Heinrich Hertz. This same effect is what modern solar cells use to convert solar energy to electricity.

1894

American inventor Melvin Severy receive two patents for further development. The second patent intended to convert solar energy into electricity for heat, light, and power.

1905

Albert Einstein created awareness with his paper on the photoelectric effect and the way that light carries energy, for which he won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1921.

1908

William J. Bailey invented the “Copper Collector,” improving efficiency by copper insulation.

1940

Russell Shoemaker Ohl from Bell Laboratories accidentally creates the basis of a silicon solar cell and patents it at an efficiency of about 1 percent. We wonder what he’d say about flexible solar panels.

who invented solar panels

1953

The engineer, Daryl Chapin, settles for solar energy as a power source for telephone systems in remote locations.

At the same time, studies on global warming and the depletion of fossil fuels hit the press and begin to create public awareness and outcry.

1954

A team of inventors at Bell Laboratories improved cellular technology with silicon solar cells as a more efficient material to selenium.

Silicon increased the cellular efficiency to 6% to produce the first practical solar cell. As much as the increased efficiency was promising and silicon readily available, it was not yet an affordable alternative.

Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson from Bell Laboratories collaborated with Daryl Chapin to improve the properties of silicon solar cells.

Chapin continued to simplify solar cell production, and the three solar-teers, Chapin, Fuller, and Pearson, were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2008.

Bell Labs proudly demonstrated a more successful invention on April 25, 1954, powering a small toy Ferris wheel with a solar panel and a solar-powered radio transmitter.

In the years to come, solar power became a more affordable solution used to power satellites, with other applications in the slip-stream.

1958

The Vanguard I was the first satellite to use solar power for its radios, with the Vanguard II, Explorer III, and Sputnik-3 following.

1959

Hoffman electronics achieved a 10% solar conversion efficiency and then increased that up to 14% by 1960.

1964

NASA launched the Nimbus satellite, solely relying on its 470-watt photovoltaic solar panel array.

1966

NASA launched the world's first Orbiting Astronomical Observatory powered by a one-kilowatt solar array.

1967

The first solar-powered spacecraft to carry humans, the Soviet Union’s Soyuz 1, soars into the sky.

1970’s

After solar panels' journey into space, environmental concerns and oil shortages brought about renewed public interest in solar energy.

Dr. Elliot Berman, via research funded by Exxon, managed to produce a more cost-effective solar cell.

1973

The University of Delaware created one of the first solar cell buildings, the "Solar One." The "Solar One" ran off a hybrid supply of thermal and photovoltaic solar power. 

Perfect timing indeed, with an energy crisis leading to congress and government support to further solar technology in support of a viable and affordable alternative.

1979

President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels onto the White House roof to further endorse and create awareness. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan ordered these off, but President Barack Obama returned the White House to solar splendor with panels and a solar heater during his first term.

1980’s

Development slowed down with reduced costs in traditional energy expenses. But the federal government became more involved with research and development, offering grants and tax incentives for commercial and residential solar system users.

1981

Paul MacCready builds the Solar Challenger, the first aircraft to fly purely on solar power.

1985

The University of South Wales achieved 20% efficiency for silicon solar cells.

1998

The "Pathfinder", a remote-controlled solar airplane, set an altitude record at 80,000 feet. Three years later, NASA reached 96,000 feet via their non-rocket aircraft.

1999

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in collaboration with SpectroLab Inc created a solar cell with an efficiency of 33.3%. The University of South Wales broke that boundary at 34.5% in 2016.

Solar Today

The growth rate of solar system setups in the U.S. is phenomenal, with an estimated 50% in the last decade. It has become more affordable and efficient in response to government support and incentives.

Today, standard commercial and residential solar panels have an efficiency ranging from 15%-20%.

solar panels history

The pros and cons of solar panels are an inspiration for further advancement. The main concern is still the cost-to-efficiency ratio. Solar panel energy transformation is at the core of solar technology with continuous efforts to improve efficiency with the latest technology.

Solar panels are good because they allow us to harness the sun’s energy instead of relying on resources that are slowly but surely running out. How do solar panels help the environment? Solar panels are a cleaner energy solution if recycled responsibly. There are no harmful by-products as a result of energy production.

Conclusion 

Many notable inventors and scientists contributed and refined the process to harness solar energy. The passion for patents continues, but this time around for more aesthetically pleasing technology; discreet solar cell design integrated into roof tiles or building facades.

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