The beginnings of modern solar energy may be traced back to 1839. A.E. Becquerel, a 19-year-old French scientist whose research had previously focused on phosphorescence and luminescence, developed the photovoltaic effect about this time.
He discovered that an electrical current was formed when gold or platinum plates were submerged in a solution and then subjected to unequal sun radiation. This discovery piqued the interest of scientists all across the world. August Mouchet, a French mathematician, began filing patents for solar-powered engines in the early 1860s.
Mouchet and his helper Abel Pifre, who would construct the first solar-powered printing press, showed their solar-powered engine at the Universal Exhibition in Paris in 1878, winning a gold medal. Mouchet’s work, unfortunately, was ahead of its time.
The French government cut off his support for solar power in 2008. Despite that, solar technology persevered. Charles Fritz, an American inventor, invented the first functional selenium solar cell in 1883, and Aleksandr Stoletov, invented and patented the first genuine solar cell in 1888.
Clarence Kemp, a Baltimore inventor, developed the first commercial solar water heater in 1891. When renowned physicist Albert Einstein published a paper on the photoelectric phenomenon and how light packets transmitted energy in 1905, it catapulted solar power into the spotlight. Following Einstein’s groundbreaking findings into the fundamental processes of the photoelectric effect, further innovation would follow.
Bell Labs produced the first modern solar cell in 1954 because of this new understanding. While this research helped establish solar energy as we know it today, it was inefficient. A single watt of electricity cost $250 to produce, compared to $2–3 per watt from coal facilities at the time.
Solar cells were still suitable for space use, and the Vanguard 1 spacecraft employed solar as a backup energy source in 1958. A year later, a solar cell with a 10% efficiency was produced, although it was still only used in spaceflight.
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