History of Solar Power

We are living in the era of technology and are still in the embryonic state of moving towards renewable energy. It will be quite interesting to talk about the history of solar power, that is, how the journey of solar started.

Do you know? At the end of 2019, the global capacity of renewable generation reached 2537 Gigawatts.

Renewable generation capacity increased by 176 Gigawatts (+7.4%) in 2019. Solar energy continued to lead the capacity expansion, with an increase of 98 Gigawatts (+20%).

Although, in the history of solar power, during 700 BC, humans used sunlight to light fires. They use magnifying glass materials to light fires. 

And, today, we have grown up to the time when the world had solar-powered buildings and solar-powered vehicles.

In this post, I will be discussing the history of Solar power & how solar technologies have evolved with time.

Let’s start from the very beginning:

700 BC- 1200 AD

During the 7th century B.C, Humans used magnifying glass materials to concentrate solar heat to light fires and cook food. This was the time when humans first knew about the use of solar energy for their convenience. 

Later, During the 2nd Century, a Greek scientist Archimedes used reflective properties of bronze shields to focus sunlight and to set fire to the wooden ships of the Roman Empire (also the Greek navy recreated the experiment in 1973).

Then, In 200 AD, Ancestors of the Pueblo people (Anasazi) in North America lived in south-facing cliff dwellings. Cliff dwellings were used to capture the winter sun.


18th Century

In the year 1767, a swiss scientist named Nicholas de Saussure invented the first-ever hot box or oven and used it for cooking in his South Africa journey in the 1830s.

19th Century

The 19th century was truly the revolutionary period in the history of solar power.

In 1839, French scientist Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect during one of his experiments. 

He was experimenting with an electrolytic cell. This electrolytic cell was made up of two metal electrodes, and these electrodes were placed in an electricity-conducting solution.

He then observed that the electricity generation increased when the cell was exposed to sunlight.


Later, In the 1860s, a French mathematician named August Mouchet gave an idea for solar-powered steam engines. These engines are the predecessors of modern parabolic dish collectors.

In the early 1870s, Willoughby Smith discovered the photoconductivity of selenium.

After this, William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day discovered that selenium can produce electricity when it is exposed to sunlight.

Although, this failed, they got success in proving that solid material could change light into electricity without heat or moving parts.


Keeping the concept of Selenium conductivity, In 1878, an American astronomer and physicist Samuel Pierpont Langley invented the Bolometer, a device used to measure the power of incident electromagnetic radiation through the heating of a material with a temperature-dependent electrical resistance.

In 1887, Heinrich Hertz, a German physicist, discovered that ultraviolet light made a change to the lowest voltage capable of causing a spark to jump between two metal electrodes.  

Hertz helped to establish the photoelectric effect. But, He neither pursued further investigation of this effect nor did he make any attempt at explaining how the observed phenomenon was brought about. However, Albert Einstein explained this later.

Then, In 1888, a Russian physicist Alexsandr Stoletov built and patented the first solar cell. The solar cell was based on the outer photoelectric effect, proposed by Heinrich Hertz.

1890-Before 20th Century

In 1891, the world’s first commercial solar water heater was patented by Clarence Kemp. The disadvantage of these solar water heaters was that even on clear and hot days, it usually took from morning to afternoon for the water to get hot. But this was the beginning of the evolution of Solar thermal Power.

20th Century

The 20th century brought many technological achievements in the history of solar power.

In 1905, Albert Einstein published his paper on the Photoelectric effect earlier discussed by a german physicist Heinrich Hertz in 1887 (along with the paper on his theory of relativity).

Through this, He brought widespread attention to solar power technology. He later in 1921, also received the Nobel prize in physics for his theories.


Mid 20th century

In 1953, Dr. Dayn Trivich of Waye University first made the theoretical calcu­lations on the efficiencies of different materials having various band-gap widths based on the spectrum of the sun.

Then, in the next year, In 1954,  Photovoltaic technology was born in the United States when Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson developed the silicon photovoltaic (PV) cell at Bell Labs.

This was the first solar cell capable of converting enough of the sun’s energy into power to run everyday electrical equipment.

As the space age developed in the late 1950s and 1960s, the use of solar panels started in spacecraft too. 

In the year 1958, The Vanguard I space satellite used a small (less than one watt) array to power its radios. Later in the same year, Explorer III, Vanguard II, and Sputnik-3 were launched with the technology of photovoltaic-powered systems.

Below is an image from NASA of Vanguard I Satellite:

Vanguard I Satellite
Vanguard I Satellite

In 1959, Hoffman Electronics created 10% efficient solar cells and made these photovoltaic cells commercially available. Hoffman also introduces the use of a grid contact, reducing the series resistance significantly.


In 1963, Japan installed a 242-watt, photovoltaic array on a lighthouse. It was the world’s largest array at that time.

In 1964, NASA launched the Nimbus satellite, which ran entirely on its photovoltaic solar panel array of 470-watt.

In 1969, The Odeillo solar furnace, an 8 story parabolic mirror situated in Odeillo was constructed.


In 1973, Skylab, the first U.S space station was launched and powered by solar cells.

In 1977, the U.S Department of Energy launched the Solar energy research institute. Then-President Jimmy Carter installed solar panels on the White House and promoted incentives of solar.

As described in Wikipedia,

“Under the Jimmy Carter administration, the activities of the research institute went beyond research and development as he tried to popularize knowledge about already existing technologies, like passive solar. 

During the Ronald Reagan administration, the institute cut its budget by nearly 90%; employees were “reduced in force” and the laboratory’s activities were reduced to R&D.”

1980- Before 21st Century

In 1983, worldwide photoelectric production increased by 21.3 megawatts with sales of more than $250 million. 

Later, In the year 1991, President George Bush redesignated the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Research Institute as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Till the year 1999, worldwide installed photovoltaic capacity reached 1000 megawatts.

21th Century

In the year 2000, Sandia National Laboratories developed a new inverter for solar electric systems that will increase the safety of the systems during a power outage.

Later in the year 2001, Home Depot began selling residential solar power systems in three of its stores in San Diego, California. A year later it expanded sales to include 61 stores nationwide.  

In 2002, Union Pacific Railroad installed 350 blue-signal rail yard lanterns, which include energy-saving light-emitting diode (LED) technology with solar cells, at its North Platte, Nebraska, rail yard-largest rail yard in the United States.

Later, in the same year 2002, ATS Automation Tooling Systems Inc. in Canada started to commercialize an innovative method of producing solar cells, called Spheral Solar technology. 

Then, in 2004, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger launched a solar roof initiative for 1 million solar roofs by 2017.

Below is the image of California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger from Los Angeles Magazine:

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger

In the year 2010, President Barack Obama tried to popularize Solar technologies. Also, he ordered the installation of solar panels at the White house.

Below infographic from Vivint Solar will help you to summarize the history of Solar power:

Solar Power History

You might also like:


From 700 BC when humans used sunlight to light fires with magnifying glass materials to the invention of the first solar cell in 1888.

Solar technology is evolving very fast. Solar technology achieved many milestones in the 21st century and many are yet to be achieved.

Today, we have different technologies of solar panels available in the market. 

Also, we have different storage methods for solar power. Solar power has apparently become the trend in renewable energy. 

No doubt that adopting solar has numerous benefits, we have covered it in our previous blog post. 

But, there are also some challenges as well. Everyone who is thinking of adopting solar, should not forget to consider them as well.

Although, Solar is becoming brighter day by day. There are many technological advancements in solar that made solar cheaper.

Adopting solar not only helps to reduce your carbon footprints and saves the environment but also makes you energy independent.

Share this blog with your family and friends and encourage them to adopt solar. 

You can also subscribe to our email newsletter to get the latest notification of our blog posts for free.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *