Not many people think about the origins of harnessing the energy of the sun when the battery in their iPod or cell phone begins to die. They just open the high efficiency solar cell blades on their solar battery charger and draw the free, inexhaustible energy of the sun into their solar powered electronic devices. It’s unlikely that once their electronic device is charged, that they contemplate the sun’s incredible energy; that the energy the sun provides in one minute can supply the world’s energy for one year, or that the sun can provide more energy than the world’s population could consume in 27 years. They don’t realize as they listen to their iPod on the beach, or call for a tow truck with their cell phone, that the sun, which provided the energy to charge their electronic device, has been providing this energy to the earth for the last 4 billion years.
Thankfully, being aware of these facts is not necessary in order to enjoy the benefits of solar battery chargers, or any type of solar powered electronics. Either does knowing that the journey that brought us to today’s solar energy technology began in the year 1767, with the physicist Horace Benedict de Saussure.
Due to the increased use of glass during the eighteenth century, the French-Swiss scientist Horace Benedict de Saussure became aware of the ability of glass to trap solar heat. While many of his contemporaries preferred to work with burning mirrors, which could burn objects at a distance or melt the hardest metal within seconds, de Saussure set out to determine how effectively glass heat traps could collect the energy of the sun by building the Western world’s first solar collector.
When de Saussure created what was to become the first solar oven, he had tried several designs before determining that a well-insulated box with three layers of glass to trap outgoing thermal radiation created the most heat. The highest temperature he reached was 230° F, which he found did not vary significantly when the box was carried from the top of Mt. Cramont in the Swiss Alps down to the Plains of Cournier, 4,852 feet below in altitude and 34° F above in temperature, thereby establishing that the external air temperature played no significant role in this solar heating effect.
Although not many people are aware of Horace Benedict de Suassure and his groundbreaking experiments involving solar energy collection, they certainly have him to thank for pioneering the harnessing of this environmentally friendly source of energy. This along with the development of the earliest version of the solar oven, which is still the most energy efficient, and pollution-reducing oven in use today has demonstrated the benefits of harnessing this benign source of energy. Without the experiments of Horace Benedict de Suassure they may have never been the creation of the photovoltaic cell at Bell Laboratories in 1954, or the development of the solar chargers, solar battery chargers, or solar powered electronics that we use today.