A Brief History of Solar Energy: Timeline & Important Developments

Although solar energy has firmly established its place as one of the leading sources of clean energy today, many are quick to forget that solar panels were not nearly as accessible just 15 years ago as they are now. So, how has the history of solar power led to its modern use?

Nowadays, photovoltaics systems are a common addition to homes and businesses alike. The popularity of solar energy has been on a constant rise throughout the country: homeowners and entrepreneurs can even find quality solar panels in Carlsbad, CA. Read on to find out how solar energy became what it is today.  

Where was solar energy first used?

Solar energy is as old as humankind: harnessing the power of the sun has been a common practice for almost as long as man has walked the earth. So, the question of where solar energy was first used is not as simple to answer as it may seem.

Burning mirrors

The earliest uses of solar energy go as far back as 7th century B.C. when humans used to light fires for cooking by focusing sunlight through a magnifying glass. The materials used to focus solar energy later became known as “burning mirrors” and were used by the Greeks and Romans in 3rd century B.C. for lighting torches needed for religious rituals and ceremonies.


In ancient times, the power of sunlight was used in a number of creative ways. The famous Roman bathhouses were actually sunrooms: typically south-facing rooms with tall windows, designed to capture and direct sunlight into one specific area to warm it. This practice was also familiar to Native Americans who lived in abodes that faced south and captured sunlight for warmth during cold winters.   

Archimedes and solar energy      

Archimedes of Syracuse was fabled to have used solar energy to attack enemies from the Roman Empire. According to the legend, he did this by reflecting sunlight off of bronze shields of his enemies and using the rays to set fire to their wooden ships. Funnily enough, the Greek navy tested this experiment in the 1970s and managed to burn a wooden ship with nothing but sunlight and a bronze shield!         

Who made the first solar cell?

The modern history of solar power began in 1839, when Alexandre Edmond Becquerel, a young French scientist, discovered that certain materials produced electricity when exposed to light. This led Becquerel to discover the “photovoltaic effect” and set in motion groundbreaking developments in the field of solar energy.    

The next step was taken in 1873 by Willoughby Smith who discovered that the element selenium had photoconductive properties. This encouraged William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day to experiment with Becquerel’s photovoltaic effect and confirm that selenium does, in fact, create electricity when exposed to sunlight.    

It took almost 50 years for the world to get their first solar cell after the discovery of the photovoltaic principle. In 1883, Charles Fritts, an American inventor, produced the first working selenium cell by coating it with a thin layer of gold.

Fritts’s solar cell was low impact, with efficiency as low as 1%, but was the undeniable precursor to the modern silicon cells. In 1954, Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson patented silicon-based solar cells and finally made commercial use of PV technology a development that seemed to be waiting just around the corner.     

When did solar panels start being used?

While the history of solar energy is undeniably a long one, the greatest leap toward the solar cells as they are used today came in the past couple of decades. This is most evident in the way the costs of solar energy have changed since the 1954 solar cell discovery. Here’s how it went:    

  • Hoffman Electronics: in 1959, this Californian corporation made a number of breakthroughs in PV efficiency, raising it from the initial 2% all the way up to 14%. This caused a significant cost reduction, from the staggering $300 per watt in Becquerel’s time to $100 in the 1960s.     
  • Solar panels and outer space: throughout the late 1950s and 1960s, the space age developed rapidly, leading to NASA’s 1964 launch of the Nimbus satellite which featured a 470-watt PV solar panel array. The space initiative both increased production and helped further reduce solar panel prices.  
  • 1970s inflation and discoveries: with the economic struggles that characterized this period came invaluable innovations. Events such as president Jimmy Carter having solar panels installed on the White House and Dr. Elliot Berman reducing the solar panel cost to $20 per watt finally made solar energy a tangible possibility for everybody.      
  • The final breakthrough: ever since the 1980s, the prices of solar panels have been on a steady downward trend, dropping by at least 10 percent every single year. Nowadays, solar panels can cost as low as $0.50 per watt which makes them an affordable clean energy source.    

High-quality solar panels Carlsbad, CA home and business owners rely on  

The current use of solar panels for residential and commercial purposes would never have been possible without all the scientists and engineers who dedicated their lives to making this low-cost clean energy available to everyone.

So, why not make the most of the fruit of their hard work? If you live in San Diego County, contact Action Solar and get an estimate for your home or business. Once our qualified technicians determine the appropriate number of solar panels for your home, they’ll install your solar system with unmatched expertise. Call us today!