The history of mankind’s technological use of solar power is thoroughly chronicled in a new book penned by John Perlin. With Let it Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy, solar and forest conservation expert Perlin takes the reader on a journey that stretches back to ancient times, around 2,500 years ago, when Greek architects designed homes to make the most of solar light as source of thermal comfort.
However, even further back in time, in ancient China around 6.000 years ago, stone-age Chinese built their homes making sure everyone would get as much solar exposure as possible.
The Roman Empire also realized the benefits of solar power and architects at the time even published self-help books to show people how to save on fuel as firewood became scarce (deforestation is literally an ancient problem) has been a fixture of civilization, it seems). During the renaissance Galileo and his contemporaries planned the construction of sun-focusing mirrors as the ultimate weapon to burn enemy fleets and towns.
Leonardo da Vinci, true to form, thought up more peaceful applications for solar energy. He hoped to build mirrors a mile in diameter to heat water for the woolen industry. Fast forward to the industrial revolution, when engineers devised solar-run steam engines to save Europe from paralysis in case fossil fuels ran out (sounds familiar?).
Moving on, as electricity began to power cities, the first photovoltaic modules joined the grid on a New York City rooftop in 1884. More than 100 years earlier a Swiss polymath modeled global warming by trapping solar heat in a glass-covered box just as carbon dioxide holds in solar heat above the earth. Using the same type of glass-covered box to harvest solar energy, enterprising businessmen established a thriving solar water industry in California beginning in the 1880s.
Perlin presents all those past developments and applications of solar power in meticulous detail and engaging prose, so the book is attractive for both techies and anyone interested in the history of solar as well as general history. It’s rich with surprising information on the chronological trajectory of this technology that is a central component to a sustainable and viable future.
Article by Antonio Pasolini, a Brazilian writer and video art curator based in London, UK. He holds a BA in journalism and an MA in film and television.