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When Were Solar Panels Invented?

If you are considering moving to renewable energy, understanding how solar cells work can help you see just how beneficial the move to solar power can be.
Solar Panels
7 minutes
Written by:
Joey Cheek
Updated on:
December 8, 2022

A big part of the journey of investing in solar panel systems for your home is understanding the solar industry, how solar panels work, and how long they’ve been used. Solar panels are not new – though the technology may seem like it is. Over the last few years, solar panel technology has improved significantly, with more people than ever incorporating the use of solar into their homes.

If you are considering solar panel installation, you’ll want to be sure you understand the history behind them and how they can work to provide for your home’s electricity needs. SmartSolar.org can help you. Get started by giving us a call now.

The History of Solar Panels

Solar power uses the sun’s rays to create energy. This is renewable energy, which means that there is a constant amount of solar energy available to be converted into electricity to power homes, businesses, manufacturing, and much more. Converting solar energy into a usable form of electricity hasn't always been easy to do. Let's take a look at solar technology and the history of solar cells to get a better idea of where it came from.

Early solar energy uses

Solar technology dates all the way back to the 7th Century B.C., according to Energy.gov. During that time, people used a magnifying glass to create fire using the sun's rays. In the 3rd Century B.C., both the Greek and Roman cultures used mirrors to light torches, often for religious needs. A century after that, Archimedes, a Greek scientist, made some of the most significant strides in the industry. He used reflective properties found in bronze shields to transfer the sunlight from the shield onto ships, causing them to burn.

In 20 A.D., there was additional documentation of Chinese people using burning mirrors to light torches. The next documented proof of solar energy use occurred in the 1st through the 4th Century in Rome. The Roman bathhouses were specifically constructed to be south-facing, allowing sunlight to stream in from windows to heat the water. In the 6th Century A.D., there was evidence of many homes having sunrooms. This was so common, in fact, that laws were put in place to help protect a home's access to the sun, so other properties could not be built to block it.

In around 1200 A.D., there’s evidence that shows the Pueblo people used south-facing cliff dwellings as a way to use the sun’s rays during the winter months.

Development of solar technology

Who was the first person to collect and use the sun’s energy? That could be Horace de Saussure, who was a Swiss scientist. He built what he called a sun collector. This was later used in South Africa when Sir John Herschel used it to cook food while traveling. That was in the 1830s.

When it comes to solar technology, though, Edmond Becquerel, a French scientist, is credited with developing a better understanding of the photovoltaic effect. He was working to develop electrolytic cells that functioned better when they were exposed to the sun's rays.

In the coming years, many changes occurred:

  • 1860 – August Mouchet developed the idea of a steam engine that would operate on solar power and later built one.
  • 1873 – Willoughby Smith researched selenium and learned it was photoconductive and could be helpful in solar energy generation.
  • 1876 – Researchers learned that selenium could produce electricity when it was exposed to light, though selenium solar cells did not convert enough sunlight into a usable form of electricity.
  • 1880 – A researcher developed a bolometer, which used the sun’s heat rays to measure light from stars
  • 1883 – An American investor named Charles Fritts developed the first solar cells. These initial products were made using selenium wafers. Over the coming years, numerous new developments were made, including developing a solar water heater.
  • 1905 – Albert Einstein discussed the photoelectric effect in a paper which got a significant amount of attention from the community. The Carnegie Steel Company developed a solar collector that used an insulated box with copper coils three years later.
  • 1954 – Daryl Chapin, Gerald Pearson, and Calvin Fuller developed the first photovoltaic technology in the U.S. They worked to create a silicon photovoltaic cell that was able to convert the sun’s energy into power. It was effective enough that it was able to run electric equipment from that time period, a marked improvement on older solutions. This was done through Bell Labs, and while that first silicon solar cell had just 4% efficiency, it would improve over the coming years to 11%.

Solar technology moving towards the 21st-century

Solar panels will continue to develop over the coming years. Solar cells of the mid-1950s may not have been the powerful solutions we have today, but those first solar cell productions helped foster a passion and drive for using this technology. The history of solar energy has a long background, but without a doubt, it has changed most rapidly in recent decades.

According to data from the Smithsonian Magazine, some marked changes occurred in solar development in the 1970s. That's when the country was faced with an energy crisis. That led to the passing of the Solar Energy Research, Development, and Demonstration Act of 1974. At that time, the federal government decided to invest and develop a plan for making solar more viable and for implementing it more readily into the country’s function.

That did not go as well as expected. In the 1980s, less attention was put on developing solar panels and improving solar cell efficiency because the cost of traditional forms of energy – like gas – improved. That made solar less of a priority.

Changes continued to happen in the industry, though. Photovoltaic cells improved and became more accessible and capable of generating electricity for more use. Solar PV really took off in the early 2000s. During that time, with the creation of the California Solar Initiative and even big-scale practices like offshore floating solar farm development, there was more opportunity for people to see the value of solar.

The passing of the Solar Investment Tax Credit in 2006 helped spur significant improvement overall. In the last 10 years, solar system costs have improved dramatically thanks to new technology and a better understanding of the solar industry. In fact, costs have dropped as much as 70 percent from their highs.

While it is interesting to learn the history of solar, and things like the first solar-powered radio or the first solar-powered satellite are fantastic components of the history of this technology, it is also important to consider residential solar systems today and how you can be a part of them.

To do so, consider taking the SmartSolar.org quiz and learn a bit more about solar and how modern solar panels are highly efficient and effective, and more readily available than ever before.

Answering Your Key Questions

Solar panels and solar cell technology is fascinating, but it has a long history that's often confusing. Here are some key questions that many ask about the history of solar energy and its use of it.

When Did Solar Panels Start Being Used?

The first real production of solar panels occurred in 1954. At that time, they were not as efficient and were not widely used. However, practical silicon solar cell development accelerated in the 1970s and in the 1990s.

Who Invented First Solar Panel?

One thing is obvious when you look at the history of solar panels: a lot of people contributed to the development of solar energy use. Charles Fritts is considered the first person to develop a solar panel itself, using a thin layer of selenium and a layer of gold. This initial solar panel only had a conversion electrical efficiency rating of about 1 percent.

Who Invented Solar Panels in 1954?

In 1954, Bell Labs developed the first solar panels for modern use. These were lithium-silicon photovoltaic cells. These were the first practical silicon solar cell available. A group of three people invented solar panels. Though many changes in silicon cells would come in the years after, Bell Labs is considered the inventor of the modern system.

How Old Is the Oldest Solar Panel?

There are numerous old solar panel systems in place. The oldest operational solar panel system was put in place in 1976. That makes it 45 years old.

Joey Cheek

Meet the author:

Joey Cheek

Joey Cheek spent 10 years on the US National Speedskating Team where he competed in two Olympic Games, winning gold, silver, and bronze medals. He attended Princeton before diving into the startup and tech world. In 2011 he launched a livestreaming platform for sports before leading a team of engineers building next-gen news and content apps for Fortune 100 companies. He is the CEO and co-founder of SmartSolar.org, whose mission is to move the earth to cheap, abundant, carbon-free energy.

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