Skip to content

Solar Power – Could the Three Pillars of Modern Society; Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome be Wrong?

June 19, 2011


Solar power is not the new kid on block. On the contrary, some have pegged its beginnings at 1838, some with the Greeks and Romans, others with the ancient Egyptians. One thing all can agree on is that as long as man been on the earth, the worship of the sun as that which gives life though some unknown power has been preeminent to life on earth.

The first practical use of the sun’s rays dates back to the Ancient Egyptians in the 3rd century B.C.E. According to, “the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs solar heated their palaces by capturing solar energy in black pools of water by day and draining the hot water into pipes in the floor of the palaces at night. This kind of architecture heated homes at night while keeping the temperature low during the day.”

ThinkQuest states:

• In the 3rd Century B.C.E, Greek soldiers with the help of Archimedes, focused light on a Roman fleet by using mirrors. The Romans were invading a port city that did not have defenses ready for the attack. The mirrors were used to concentrate the energy of the sun, and cause the fleet’s sails to burn. The Romans retreated and the Greeks were able to prevent the invasion.

• The Greeks used passive solar power in 100 A.D. Affluent ancient Greeks to design their homes orientated to the sun to use winter sunlight for heating. Large south-facing windows were used to collect solar heat, which was stored in massive walls and floors for gradual release throughout the night. The overhangs would heat the homes in the winter and shade out the sun in summer.

• The Romans took their knowledge of the sun being a source of energy as they were the first people to use glass windows to trap the warmth of the sun in their homes. They were so serious about the preservation of this solar energy that they erected glass houses to create the right conditions to grow plants and seeds.

• The Roman’s Justinian code demanded “sun rights” that ensured access for individuals to the sun through sunrooms on houses and public buildings.

Unfortunately, solar power remained dormant from 400 A.D., the beginning of the Dark to the Age, to the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment. Interestingly, both these key periods in the history of man use the sun’s rays, or lack thereof, as a label to connote their meaning. Even the great churches of the Middle Ages, were dimly lit haunting structures accented in the interior only by the diffuse lighting emanating from the unreachable stained glass windows high above the vaults.

Jumping some 1400 years into the Modern era, solar power starts to reenter the mind of both scientists and the general population. As we see today, its cost and reliability hindered commercialization. ThinkQuest and Ecomall cite:

• 1776, the first solar collector was built by Horace de Saussare. His collector was cone shaped and would boil ammonia that would then perform like refrigeration and locomotion. This first solar power collector attracted much interest in the scientific community through the 19th century.

• 1839, a physicist from France, Edmond Becquerei observes the photoelectric effect.

• 1861, Auguste Mouchout created a steam engine that was powered only by solar energy. This was an exciting event, but the invention was very costly and it could not be reproduced or even maintained so the steam engine was quickly forgotten.

• 1868 – 1888, John Ericsson, an American immigrant from Sweden wrote these powerful words: “A couple of thousand years dropped in the ocean of time will completely exhaust the coal fields of Europe, unless, in the meantime, the heat of the sun be employed.” He developed a solar powered steam engine, very similar in design to Mouchout’s.

• 1873, Willoughby Smith, a British scientist, experimented with the use of selenium solar cells after discovering it’s sensitivity to light while testing material for underwater telegraph cables.

• 1876 – 1878, William Adams, wrote the first book about Solar Energy called: A Substitute for Fuel in Tropical Countries. Him and his student Richard Day, experimented with the use of mirrors and was able to power a 2.5 horsepower steam engine. Much bigger than the Mouchout’s 0.5 horsepowered steam engine. His design, known as the Power Tower concept, is still in use today.

• 1883, Fritz turned the sun’s rays into electricity and built the first visible light converting photovoltaic cells made of selenium were built and had 1- 2% efficiency.

• 1885 – 1889, Charles Tellier, a Frenchman who is seen as the father of refrigeration, experimented with a non-concentrating/ non-reflecting solar motor. He installed the first solar energy system for heating household water on top of his very own roof.

• 1891, the first commercial solar water heater was patented by the father of American solar energy, Clarence Kemp.

• 1892 – 1905, Aubrey Eneas formed the first Solar Energy company – The Solar Motor Co. They sold the first Solar Energy system to Dr. A.J. Chandler of Mesa, Ariz for $2,160. It was destroyed less than a week later by a windstorm. They sold a second one to John May, but that one too, was destroyed by a hailstorm shortly afterwards. This led to the company’s downfall.

• 1904, Henry Willsie recognized the need to store generated power and built 2 huge plants in California. He was the first to successfully use power at night after generating it during the day. Even so, he was not able to make a sale and his company folded.

• 1906 – 1914, Frank Shuman’s company, Sun Power Co, built the largest and most cost-effective solar energy system covering 10,000 square feet plus. Although it produced a lot of steam it did not produce enough pressure. Together with E.P. Haines he then formed Sun Power Co. Ltd. They built an irrigation plant just outside of Cairo, but unfortunately it was destroyed during the Great War.

• 1908, William J. Bailley of the Carnegie Steel Company invented a solar collector with copper coils and an insulated box.

• 1921, Albert Einstein for his work on using solar power (photoelectric effect) was even granted a Nobel Prize in physics.

• Early 1950’s, a process for producing crystalline silicon of high purity was developed, called the Czochralski meter.

• 1954, Calvin Fuller, Gerald Pearson and Daryl Chaplin of Bell Laboratories accidentally discovered the use of silicon as a semi-conductor, which led to the construction of a silicon PV cell solar panel with an efficiency rate of 6% and later accomplished 11% efficiency.

• 1956, the first commercial solar cell was made available to the public at a very expensive $300 per watt. It was now being used in radios and toys.

• Mid-1950’s, the first solar water heated office building was built by architect Frank Bridgers.

• 1958, the U.S. Vanguard, a small satellite, was powered by a less than one watt power solar cell.

• 1960’s cheap imported oil was the main energy competitor to solar power and restricted the overall solar technology market.

• 1970’s, International markets and foreign investments especially from Germany and Japan take off, but continue to be major factors in the solar energy market.

• 1973 – 1974, the oil embargo awakened American’s to realize how reliant we are on non-renewable, finite resources like coal, oil and gas for our existence and fostered the  opportunity for solar power to flourish as it became important to find an alternative form of energy. The US Department of Energy funded the Federal Photovoltaic Utilization Program that began installation and testing of over 3,000 PV systems.

• 1980′s, incentive for business led to around 150 businesses for manufacturing industry with annual sales of $0.8 billion.

• 1980 – 1991, a Los Angeles based company called Luz Co. produced 95% of the world’s solar-based electricity. They were forced to shut their doors after investors withdrew from the project as the price of non-renewable fossil fuels declined and the future of state and federal incentives were not likely. The chairman of the board said it best: “The failure of the world’s largest solar electric company was not due to technological or business judgment failures but rather to failures of government regulatory bodies to recognize the economic and environmental benefits of solar thermal generating plants.”

• 1990, the Gulf War renewed interest in solar power as an alternative to oil and petroleum products.

• Mid 1990’s, have few tax credits and incentives for solar electric homes or heating systems, yet approximately 1.2 million buildings in the US are solar heated.

• Today, according to the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2011 report: “with a significant expected increase in energy demand, and an obvious lack of real-change legislation, the world will be still heavily dependent on fossil-fuels.”

High prices (fossil-fuels) and increased concern over greenhouse gas emissions are pushing demand for renewable energy as well. The only sources truly competitive are (according to EIA’s report): hydro electricity and wind.

EIA’s Short-Term Energy Outlook report released in March 2011stated “greenhouse gas emissions increased by 3.7% in 2010, due to increased burning of coal and fossil fuels to provide electricity during an abnormally hot summer. The EIA projects no growth in CO2 emissions this year, but a 1.8% increase for 2012. The report did not mention solar power or trends.

In closing, over its 2,500 year history, harvesting free energy from the sun has had a continuum of false starts and rapid derailment. Even today, with national rhetoric centered on energy security, environmental stewardship and economic prosperity; sunlight, which includes not only visible light but other forms of electromagnetic radiation such as X-rays, ultraviolet, infrared and radio waves, seems to be a logical choice.

On the surface, the cost of solar power appears to be its key disadvantage. But in actuality, it can be argued that the real #1 factor impeding solar energy as a viable renewable source of power is the lack of leadership; insight and courage necessary to develop a comprehensive energy policy, which amongst a host of programs also removes subsidies and hidden costs that prevent the price of oil to reflect its true cost, both direct and indirect. Maybe then we could turn to our ancestry and give thanks to their wisdom for allowing us to see the light.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 19, 2012 12:57 PM

    Excellent catalog, There are also the Solar shrines to take into account. These are the most common ancient solar structure in my opinion. see The ancient Solar Premise is dedicated to raising peoples awareness of the extensive use of solar tech in deep antiquity, the simple techniques stretch all the way back to the neoliths.

  2. October 18, 2012 3:04 AM

    Chapter I. Great sensation from Republic of Georgia about sacral sun “Rá”, stars and oldest Civilizations of Atlantis, Sumer, Egypt and India. The summary of first Opening: “Two Georgian physicists proves that in the territory of Republic of Georgia especially on extensive space the high-frequency information signals are spread”. This fact was checked by the foreign specialists from Ukraine with special equipment and they have proven: this is indeed the case. But what is the reason and why is that so? Please, read the News. The logic explanation is given at this link (no virus and free of charge):

  3. Anonymous permalink
    February 13, 2013 10:19 AM

    I like it best i ever had to find stuff.

  4. February 13, 2013 10:20 AM

    best i ever had.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: