Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story Of Solar Energy


Charles Pope explains that he wrote his book Solar Heat, published in 1903, because ‘some call to the people is needed … to arouse interest … [in] 'catching the sunbeams' and extracting gold from them.’ To accomplish his goal, he tells his readers, he has endeavored ‘to trace the history of attempts and successes in the utilization of solar heat[;] … discuss ways and means; and attempt to arouse his readers to give to the matter their energy and invention, their brain and capital; that we may very soon see solar enginery take its place by the side of steam enginery and electrical enginery and gas enginery in the public estimation, in technical schools, in mechanical journals, and in myriads of practical, labor-saving constructions.’ More than 100 years later I have attempted the same by writing Let It Shine.

Many believe that solar energy is a late-twentieth-century phenomenon, yet 6,000 years ago the Stone Age Chinese built their homes so that every one of them made maximum use of the sun's energy in winter. So begins the story of the genesis of solar energy told in Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy, the world's first and only comprehensive history of humanity's use of the sun. Because so few have attempted a comprehensive history of solar energy, page after page of this book brings to light information never before unearthed.
Twenty-five hundred years ago, for example, the sun heated every house in most Greek cities. Years later Roman architects published self-help books about using solar energy to show people how to save on fuel as firewood became scarce and as fleets scoured the known world for much-needed supplies of wood. During the renaissance, Galileo and his contemporaries planned the construction of solar-focusing mirrors to serve as the ultimate weapon to burn enemy fleets and towns. Leonardo entertained more peaceful applications. He aimed at making his fortune by building mirrors a mile in diameter to heat water for the woolen industry. Much later, during the Industrial Revolution, engineers devised sun-powered steam engines to save Europe from paralysis should it run out of fossil fuels. In 1767, a Swiss polymath modeled global warming by trapping solar heat in a glass-covered box in the same way that carbon dioxide traps solar heat above the earth. Using the same type of glass-covered box to harvest solar energy, enterprising businessmen established a thriving solar water-heater industry in California beginning in the 1890s! And as electricity began to power cities, the first photovoltaic array was installed on a New York City rooftop in 1884.

A hundred and thirty years later, Let It Shine brings to light documents suppressed by the Nixon, Carter, and Reagan administrations that, had the public and Congress known about them at the time, would have permitted solar energy to assume a much larger role in the American energy mix.

Let It Shine presents the step-by-step development of solar architecture and technology. By providing the background for and illuminating the process of discovery, this book permits a deeper understanding of how solar-energy applications have evolved and performed. The book is more than a technological treatise, though. It presents the context in which these developments occurred and the people who made the solar revolution possible, revealing a whole new group of unknown technological pioneers, as well as identifying people famous for accomplishments other than in their work as solar-energy advocates and technologists. No one today thinks of Socrates as a solar-energy promoter, for example. Yet the author Xenophon, in his work Memorabilia, records Socrates presenting a basic plan for a solar house. Vitruvius, a Roman still famous today as the architect of architects, transmitted the wisdom of the Greeks on building in relation to the sun. The first aspiring solar-energy entrepreneur was Leonardo da Vinci. And Einstein's famous treatise on light quanta, which won him the Nobel Prize, reveals the great scientist as the father of modern photovoltaics.

Then there are the forgotten people, such as Gustav Vorherr, who in the 1820s opened the first school of solar architecture, in Munich, and his mentor, Dr. Bernhard Christoph Faust, the first person to write a complete book on using solar energy. Thousands of architects – trained in the work of Faust and educated by Vorherr – fanned out to build solar-oriented homes throughout Europe in the 19th century. Sympathetic despots of Bavaria and Prussia actually required their subjects to follow the teachings of these men when building, which resulted in one portion of an urban area becoming a ‘sun city.’ And who has heard of William Grylls Adams and Richard Evans Day, who discovered in 1876 the photovoltaic effect in solid materials, or Charles Fritts, who put up the first rooftop solar array in the 1880s?

This is but a sampling of what's to be found in Let It Shine.

Let It Shine's precursor was A Golden Thread: 2,500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology, which I coauthored with Ken Butti in 1980. Ken went on to follow other pursuits, and I continued to write, producing, for example, A Golden Thread's photovoltaic sequel, From Space to Earth: The Story of Solar Electricity. And my book A Forest Journey: The Story of Wood and Civilization examines in great detail the fuel shortages, principally caused by forest devastation, that led many civilizations to turn to the sun to heat water and home interiors. Let It Shine is distilled from the insights I gained while researching and writing these three books and from new research over the past three decades.

Let It Shine presents the core of A Golden Thread, along with twelve new chapters and many additions to the older ones, making it the definitive history of the uses of solar energy throughout time. By giving an in-depth account of past successes and failures in applying the sun's energy to the art of living, the book offers insights into what the future of solar energy may come to be.

The first and most difficult step in crossing over from today's fossil-fueled world to a solar future is realizing that it can be done. Let It Shine makes this recognition possible by showing how our predecessors used the sun to better their lives. In doing so, Let It Shine demonstrates that the sun can become a major source of power that moves humanity toward living in a world that operates on carbon-free energy.

Excerpted from the book Let It Shine. Copyright 2013 by John Perlin. Reprinted with permission from New World Library.

John Perlin is an analyst in the department of physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Reach him by email at johnperlin@physics.ucsb.edu.

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