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The Pioneers of Solar Energy

solar pioneers

Let’s take a moment to recognize the pioneers in the world of solar panels. Solar energy has a long history, which dates way back to the 7th century B.C.! Back then they were using solar power with a magnifying glass to make fire, but once they figured that out, it was all uphill from there. Here’s a tribute to all the major players in making solar energy what it is today: with over 600 gigawatts installed worldwide!

Pioneers of Solar Rundown

1. Archimedes

One of the very first solar pioneers documented was Archimedes of Syracuse. While other groups of people used the sun’s energy to create fire before Archimedes, there is a legend that Archimedes used solar energy to defeat his enemies in the Siege of Syracuse in the 2nd century B.C.. He allegedly did this with an invention called the solar powered heat ray, which set fire to ships using reflective material to focus the sun’s light. Even though no one really knows if this was a legend, take a look at this technology, recreated by Green Power Science.

2. Horace de Saussure

Horace tops our list because he was the first to create a successful solar oven back in 1767. At the time, they called them “hot boxes”  and they were used only to cook food.

3. Robert Stirling

In 1816, Robert Stirling, a minister at the Church of Scotland, built heat engines using in his spare time. At the time, only steam engines existed so this was a breakthrough in utilizing heat for power. Later more solar pioneers made the first working model of the “Stirling Engine”, named after the “father of hot air engines”.

Watch this video to learn more about Stirling Engines and why they may be (plus solar) the future of renewable energy.

4. Edmond Becquerel

In 1839, came along and changed the solar world forever. He was a French scientist who was the very first to discover the photovoltaic (PV) cell. This was a game changer for solar panel technology, and he discovered it at the ripe age of only 19. This was so important that the photovoltaic effect is also known as the Becquerel effect.

Learn more about how Becquerel discovered this effect unintentionally.

5. Augustin Mouchot

In the 1860’s, Augustin was a French mathematician who first proposed the idea of solar-powered steam engines. Then, working with his assistant, they made the very first engine that was solar-powered!

6. Willoughby Smith

In 1873, Willoughby was a solar rockstar for one simple reason: he discovered the photoconductivity of selenium, a key component in solar panels that were yet to be discovered!

7. William Grylls Adams

Only 3 years later in 1876, William Grylls Adams and assistant, Richard Evans Day, discovered that selenium produces electricity when exposed to light.  This was the first time it was demonstrated that electricity could be produced from light without moving parts and led to the modern solar cell.

8. Charles Fritts

In 1883, Charles Fritts had a visionary idea described as the first selenium solar PV cell. He built the first working photovoltaic cell!

9. Wilhelm Hallwachs

Where would the solar industry be today if Hallwachs hadn’t first discovered that a combination of copper and cuprous oxide is photosensitive in 1904?

10. Stanford R. Ovshinsky 

“Father of Modern Solar Energy” Ovshinsky invented a system of continuous mass production to make solar power affordable as well as a way to greatly increase the rate of solar panel production in order to make solar power cheaper than coal.

11. Kerr MacGregor

Britain’s leading solar inventor. We have MacGregor to thank for the original way for solar water heating. Because who likes a cold solar shower? He was also a bagpipe player and even invented a solar powered version of the pipes. What a lad.

solar water heater

Solar Water Heater design by William Bailey

12. William J. Bailey

In 1908, William Bailey of the Carnegie Steel Co. invents a solar collector with copper coils and an insulated box — roughly, it’s present design.

13. Jan Czochralski 

You know you’re a badass when you have a scientific method named after you. The Czochralski method, discovered in 1918, grows monocrystalline silicon, which is used in the production of conventional solar cells.

14. Albert Einstein

The one and only Albert Einstein helped out the field of solar energy back in 1921. He was the first to explain the photoelectric effect and later won the Nobel Prize for this theory.

15. Gordon Pearson, Calvin Fuller and Darryl Chapin

This terrific trio created the first practical solar cell in 1954.The silicon photovoltaic was the first capable of converting enough of the sun’s energy into power to run everyday electrical equipment.

16. H. Leslie (Les) Hoffman

Hoffman made great strides in making the solar cell a practical and useful source of renewable energy. He drastically improved its efficiency and made solar panels marketable and within grasp of regular folks. Hoffman photovoltaic cells were used in the first satellite to be powered by solar cells – the Vangaurd I in 1958.

17. Peter Glaser

Using satellites to beam solar energy from space down to earth – someone had to think of the idea first and Peter Glaser is our guy. He came up with the concept in 1965 and it would lead our guy to become known as the father of the solar power satellite.

Dr Elliot Berman Solar

Dr. Elliott Berman Image via NPR

18. Dr. Elliott Berman

Dr. Berman is credited for bringing the price down for solar energy in the 1970s. He designed a significantly cheaper solar cell with less costly materials and a lower-grade silicon. This made solar energy more accessible to consumers and companies for use.

19. David Carlson and Christopher Wronski

In 1976, these two invented the hydrogenated amorphous silicon solar cell. Their development caught the world’s attention and soon many more as it kick started the solar research race for other nations to keep up.

20. Bill Yerkes

Often called the “father of modern solar energy” he’s known for commercializing and industrializing crystalline silicon solar.

Learn more about the Father of Modern Solar Energy.

21. Alvin Marks

Marks was an early experimenter of solar energy and spent the second half of his career working to develop alternative and low-cost energy sources. In 1988 his Lepcon and Lumeloid solar power technologies received patents.

22. Subhendu Guha

Flexible solar shingles wouldn’t exist without this Indian American photovoltaic scientist. In 1998 he led the invention of them as replacements for asphalt shingles.

23. Walter T Welford

Welford’s work is cited often in regards to  Solar Energy, revolving around the optics of CPC.

future solar energy

The Future of Solar Energy

The solar industry continues to grow every year. In 2020 alone, the U.S. solar industry grew 43%, which is more than any other year on record.  In addition to growth, solar energy technology advances every year. This is much in part thanks to brilliant innovators in the field like those listed above and the many more to come. Big things are in the works to make solar panel systems more affordable and accessible for powering homes to powering leaps and bounds in space. The sky’s the limit when it comes to what solar power can do.

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