The History of Solar Energy

One of the most striking things I’ve come across since gaining an interest in green living, and technology is the irony that progress is a pretty relative term in the end.  Positioned in this 21st Century of ours, progress just doesn’t mean what it did in the 20th century.

In that earlier era, progress was about building faster, faster, more, more.  And where technology is still a force designed to make our lives easier, this drive for “faster, faster…” must be tempered with a new and necessary paradigm of “less, less”, or perhaps more accurately “smarter, smarter”.

A not-so-admirable trait of the 20th Century idea of technological progress of course is that newer is always better.  Here in this new era, we’re discovering more and more that this simply isn’t true.  And here’s where the irony part kicks in; where progress has mostly been defined with a linear association with pushing into the future, as it turns out, this “smarter, smarter” when it comes to global energy sources, is increasingly pointing to the past just as much as it is concerned with modern innovation.

Among many examples of how we used to power our civilization, a great example is solar energy.

Let’s take a look at this example of solar power and trace its history, with the idea that our future may well depend on our examination of such history.

Discover the history of solar energy, from the ancient world, through the Renaissance, and into our 21st Century. Click the image to view it in full.

As any schoolkid will tell you, the sun is the source of all life on this planet.

It should be of no surprise that the sun is presented in myths across nearly every continent as such, and given godlike qualities too; Helios, Ra, Garuda, Apollo are all examples of sun gods, which reflect how aware the great civilizations were of the sun’s power, even if that awareness was reflected in non-technological ways.

Yet, the idea of the sun as a primary source of power inflamed the imaginations of  our most prominent scientists as well, including Leornardo DaVinci and Albert Einstein.  Einstein theorized about wave and particle light theories in the early 20th century.  And Einstein was no slouch. But, incredibly, DaVinci envisioned ways of harnassing sunlight, drawing specs for solar collectors in the 1500s!

The point is that the sun as a source of energy is not a new idea.  It’s one of the oldest, and certainly one of the most recurring.  And now that we’ve reached the 21st Century, we realize that our historical fascination with the sun isn’t something to be left in the past.  In examining the history of energy, it turns out that many so-called alternative energy sources have existed all along, unexplored in the 20th Century mainstream for the most part, and cast on a heap in the self-same name of progress by industrialization.

But, the invoice for mass and unchecked industrialization has turned out to be a little higher than we thought.  What we’re finding is that the technologies of centuries ago are looking more and more viable, and necessary to our future after all.  And even as the earth rotates around the sun, so should our thinking circle back to what we’ve relied on for thousands of years when it comes to our dependence on the sun.  Warmth, food, and lighting determined by strategic daylight exposure, were once keys to our success.  Today, sheer imagination expressed through informed technological development around solar energy, and the self-same principles of strategic building placement in relation to exposure to sunlight, shouldn’t be considered far fetched either.

Here’s our situation, it seems to me.  Our needs as a species haven’t really changed that much. We still need a means of keeping warm and cool, of getting around our cities safely and efficiently, and generally of living the way we need to live without creating an unhealthy, unsustainable mess for ourselves and our children.  With the technological insights and capabilities we’ve got today, the drive to continue the work of some of our most celebrated scientific minds should be an imperative.  We need to make solar power (and other ancient technologies like wind power, and rainwater harvesting) into a mainstream concern. The history of clean energy should be ongoing.

As other points of history have proven to us, newer is not always better.   In this, the very word ‘progress’ needs to be more sharply defined. And here’s my contribution: Progress is not a straight line pointing in one direction. In this, theories of clean energy envisioned in the past, combined with the innovations of the present, is the ray of hope that will inform our future.



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