The direct use of solar energy has occurred throughout history. For thousands of years ancient people relied on the sun’s energy to evaporate small pools of brackish water so that they might collect the salt. The earliest recorded history of solar dates back to around 700 BC when it is reported that the Vestal Virgins in Rome used the pure flame from the sun to light the altar fire at the Temple of Vesta in Rome. Five-hundred years later, the Greek Archimedes was reputed to have used solar reflecting mirrors to set fire to the sails of the attacking Roman fleet. A Frenchman, Lavosier, built the earliest solar furnace in the 1700’s by using a 51-inch lens to concentrate solar heat to melt metals. In 1872 a large solar still was built in the Chilean desert to supply 6,000 gallons of pure water per day from salt water. Solar cookers were built and used in India in the 1880’s. Small steam engines were powered by solar energy as early as 1878. In Egypt, a 50-horsepower engine was used in 1913 to pump irrigation water. Solar hot water heaters were popular in the southern states in the 1930’s. Specifically, 80 percent of the new houses in Florida built between 1937 and 1941 were equipped with solar hot water heaters. The 1933 World’s Fair featured a passive solar designed house. yore recently, NASA used solar energy to power satellites.
Despite the unique and long history of solar applications, the direct use of solar energy never caught on because there was always cheaper, alternate energy sources available: wood, water power, or fossil fuels. In reality, these sources were not cheaper than the sun’s energy, which is free. The coats of building devices to utilize the sun’s energy were greater, however, than the costs needed to utilize the other sources that were available.
As energy coats skyrocket, solar history must be remembered in order to encourage a rebirth of age-old principles, not the birth of a new technology.
The great tragedy of solar history is the decision of the American government in the 1950’s to look to nuclear power as the answer to the 1975 shortage of fossil fuels so accurately predicted in a federal report in 1952. After 30 years of receiving massive amounts of federal money, the nuclear power industry only provides two percent of US. energy needs! How different our present might be if the US. had put that research and development into solar solutions rather than pursuing the course of nuclear power.