Who Invented Solar Panels?

You may know who invented the car and the lightbulb. But who invented solar panels?

The first solar panel was created by New York inventor Charles Fritts in 1883. Fritts installed the world’s first solar panels on a rooftop in New York City, paving the way for future innovations.

Fritts based his work on previous research from Edmond Becquerel, a French physicist, and Augustin Mouchot, a French mathematician. And, over the last 140 years, other inventors have improved Fritts’ original invention.

Keep reading to discover everything you need to know about Charles Fritts, the invention of solar panels, and other inventors who have contributed to modern solar panels.

The Early History of Solar Panels

For centuries, inventors looked for ways to capture solar energy and transform it into something useful. 

Many civilizations discovered how to capture the thermal energy of sunlight, for example, and use it to heat buildings. The Romans and Greeks used mirrors and lenses to manipulate the heat of the sun, for example.  

However, the first person credited with transforming solar energy into electricity was a young French physicist named Edmond Becquerel. In 1839, Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect, which involves using light or radiant energy to produce an electric current.

In the 1860s, French mathematician Augustin Mouchot built off Becquerel’s work to create solar-powered engines. Inspired by Becquerel, Mouchot registered patents for multiple solar-powered engines throughout the 1860s.

News of Mouchot’s solar engines spread worldwide – including to the United States. Solar energy had exploded onto the scene, and inventors were rapidly researching ways to enhance solar power and make it more useful.

Eventually, news of Mouchot’s invention made its way to an inventor in New York named Charles Fritts.  

Charles Fritts Creates the World’s First Solar Panel in 1883

In 1883, New York inventor Charles Fritts used a combination of selenium and gold to create the world’s first solar cell.

As Smithsonian Magazine explains, Fritts used selenium in the solar cell because of its ability to produce a continuous, constant, considerable force, transferring solar energy into electricity more effectively.

Compared to modern solar cells, Fritts’ early solar panels were highly inefficient. They transferred solar energy into electricity at a rate of 1% to 2%, which is much lower than the industry standard today of 15% to 20%.

Nevertheless, Fritts is credited with inventing the world’s first solar cell. 

In 1884, Fritts demonstrated the power of his invention by installing a solar panel array on a rooftop in New York City. That array produced electricity.

Edward Weston Receives Two Solar Panel Patents in 1888

The first solar panel patent in the United States was registered on September 4, 1888. 

American inventor Edward Weston received US Patent 389,124 for his “Apparatus for Utilizing Solar Radiant Energy.” The goal of the apparatus was to transform radiant energy (from sunlight) into electrical energy.

Later in 1888, Weston received another patent, US Patent 389,425, for a similar system. 

Both of Weston’s systems had similar features, including:

  • The systems focused light energy (from sunlight) using a lens onto a solar cell
  • The solar cell was described as a “thermopile,” or an electronic device capable of converting thermal energy into electricity
  • That thermopile was made from bars of dissimilar metals
  • As light heated up Weston’s solar cell, it caused the release of electrons, leading to an electric current

Overall, Weston’s solar cell apparatus concentrated sunlight onto a specific area to maximize the conversion of sunlight into electricity, giving you a usable source of electrical current from sunlight alone.

Other Early Solar Panel Inventions

Over the late 1800s and early 1900s, several other inventors developed their own solar panels or improved on the technology above. 

Notable names from this period included:

Aleksandr Stoletov Discovers Photoelectricity in 1888: In 1888, the same year Weston was developing his solar apparatus, a Russian scientist named Aleksandr Stoletov invented the world’s first solar cell using photo electricity to generate electric current. Stoletov’s creation captured sunlight, then released electrons. Stoletov based his research on work from German physicist Heinrich Hertz, who found ultraviolet light was more powerful than visible light. Modern solar panels use this same photoelectric effect to create electricity from sunlight.

Melvin Severy Receives Two Patents for Solar Panels in 1894: In 1894, American inventor Melvin Severy received two patents related to solar panels and solar cell technology. US Patent 527,377 covered Severy’s “Apparatus for Mounting and Operating Thermopiles,” for example, while US Patent 527,379 covered an “Apparatus for Generating Electricity by Solar Heat.” Both inventions featured solar cell technology that converted solar energy into electricity via the photoelectric effect. Severy’s second patent was unique because it involved mounting solar cells on a turntable, allowing the solar panels to face the sun all day long.

Harry Reagan Receives Patents for Thermal Batteries in 1897: In 1897, American inventor Harry Regan received multiple patents for thermal batteries. Until Reagan invented the thermal battery, there was no good way of storing thermal energy. You needed to use the thermal energy immediately or lose it forever. Reagan’s thermal battery collected and stored heat using a large mass. Unlike modern batteries, Reagan’s invention did not store electricity: it stored heat. Reagan received US Patent #588177 for his work.

William Coblentz Receives a Patent for a Thermal Generator in 1913: In 1913, American inventor William Coblentz received US Patent 1,077,219 for a thermal generator. Coblentz’s device involved using light rays to create electricity. Coblentz specifically envisioned a system where the generator created power for useful work – say, in factories and machines or to heat and cool homes.

Bell Laboratories Creates the First Modern Solar Panel in the 1950s

After years of tinkering and experimentation by various inventors, Bell Laboratories created the first modern solar panel in the 1950s.

A team of three inventors at Bell Laboratories found semiconducting materials like silicon were more efficient than selenium. They created solar cells that were more efficient than any previously created.

The invention of the silicon solar cell made solar panel technology mainstream and practical. For the first time, a solar panel could reliably produce electricity, and you could use that electricity for any purpose. Although the system was expensive and out of reach for the average person, it paved the way for future solar panel inventions.  

The three Bell Laboratories inventors, including Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller, and Gerald Pearson, were later inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. 

The United States Energy Crisis of the 1970s Accelerates Solar Panel Development

The United States faced an energy crisis in the 1970s. Ordinary sources of energy skyrocketed in price, pushing Americans to source for cheaper alternatives. 

The University of Delaware demonstrated the power of solar energy in 1973 with the launch of one of the world’s first solar buildings, Solar One. Solar One ran entirely on thermal energy – including solar thermal and solar photovoltaic power. The roof was covered in solar cells to constantly convert sunlight into electricity. Solar One proved to the public that solar energy could power modern buildings. 

Motivated by Solar One and other practical applications of solar panel technology, the public became increasingly interested in solar panels – and the United States government responded. 

In 1974, Congress passed the Solar Energy Research, Development, and Demonstration Act intending to make solar panels more practical and accessible to the public. 

As energy prices dropped in the 1980s, solar energy became less of a priority. Over the last 20 to 30 years, however, the United States has launched various initiatives to expand the use of solar panels. 

Modern Companies Continue to Advance Solar Panel Technology

Today, modern solar panel companies continue to improve on solar panel technology. 

Solar Engineering, Enpulz, Solar City, Guardian Industries Corporation, and United Solar Systems, among others, have all received patents for various types of modern solar panels.

Many of these companies have created solar panels that are more efficient and discreet than previous solar panels. Some patents cover solar shingles, for example, while others involve building-applied photovoltaic (BAPV) arrays.

All modern solar panel companies have something in common, however: they all trace their history back to Charles Fritts’ ingenious invention in 1883 when he first installed solar panels on a roof in New York City.  

Final Word

The first solar panel was invented by Charles Fritts in 1883. However, other inventors – both before and after Fritts’ launch – were critical in the expansion of solar panel technology. 

From Edmond Becquerel to Charles Fritts to Bell Laboratories to modern companies like Solar City, solar panel technology continues to improve to maximize efficiency, affordability, and practicality. 

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