The use of the sun as a power source dates back to ancient times and has been used by cultures all over the world ever since. The history of solar power begins when the earliest use of solar power was to warm dwellings by building them into the side of hills where the sun could warm them during the day. This heat would then be released all evening to keep the dwellings warm. This form of passive solar heating is still in use today with minor improvements through the years as it has been adapted for modern residential homes. The Romans were so serious about the harnessing and use of solar power that they constructed large buildings with southern facing windows to capture the heat from the sun. The water used in their bathhouses was also heated by the sun and they designed elaborate collectors to capture this heat to warm the water with solar power. These early societies even passed laws guaranteeing certain solar rights to ensure a homes clear access to this essential solar resource.
These crude collection schemes were later refined in the mid 1700’s by a Swiss inventor named Horace de Saussure who invented the first commercial solar collector. He called it a hotbox and it was used to cook food using nothing but sunlight for fuel. Many of the techniques pioneered as part of this invention are still being used today in modern solar water heating systems. In fact the first commercial solar water heater was produced in 1891 by an inventor named Clarence Kemp that was based on some of the same principles used in this original hotbox.
This brief history of solar power continues with the discovery of the photovoltaic effect in 1839 by Edmond Becquerel. He noticed that certain materials will produce a small electrical current when exposed to sunlight. This single discovery gave birth to the modern PV technology used in home solar power systems available today. Even though this initial discovery was little more than a scientific exhibition, the concepts he discovered have been improved and refined throughout solar power history to allow these PV home solar power systems to provide a good deal of free power from sunlight.
This chapter in solar power history got another significant boost when an American inventor named Charles Fritts made the first solar cells out of silicon wafers instead of selenium in 1883. This single discovery in solar power history made these home solar power systems more efficient and affordable than ever. This was also a historic event in the history of solar power because the older solar cells made of selenium were not safe for commercial production with the manufacturing techniques available at the time.
The development of the silicon crystal line of solar cells continued until a Polish scientist named Jan Czochralski developed a technique in 1918 for growing single crystal silicon. This is far superior to older types of silicon and is several times more efficient than anything that had been available up until this point. This one single event made solar power for homes a reality by allowing modern solar panels to generate a large amount of power from simple sunlight. Modern solar cells are created in much the same way today and through the addition of other doping agents have increased their efficiency several time that of these earlier models.
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