The History Of Solar Technology: How It All Started

Solar power has a long history that dates back to the late 1830s when French physicist, Edmond Becquerel, first discovered that, under the right conditions, light can produce electrical current through a process called the photovoltaic effect. From there, further technological advancements continued and by the 1860s another French scientist, Augustin Mouchot, registered the first ever patent for a solar powered engine. However, it would two more decades for someone to develop the first ever solar cell.

In 1883, Charles Fritts, of New York, invented the first solar cell that was capable of producing continuous electrical current. Fritts’ first solar cell was made with a thin layer of gold that was coated with raw selenium. Eleven years later, Melvin Severy, an American inventor from Melrose Massachusetts, patented the first ever “solar panel” which he called a thermo-pile. However, it would take several more decades for an efficient solar cell to be developed that had practical applications.

In April of 1954, scientists at Bell laboratories began using silicon, rather than selenium, in their solar cells. By using silicon as the main semiconducting material, Bell Laboratories was able to develop a solar cell that was three times more efficient than Charles Fritts’ selenium solar cells. Even though these solar cells were far more efficient than their predecessors they were still extremely expensive to produce. However, in 1973 the University of Delaware built the first ever solar powered building that they aptly named Solar One. The building’s energy efficiency coupled with the environmental movement and energy crisis that was occurring in the U.S. during the same time period led the government to pass the Solar Energy Research, Development, and Demonstration Act. The events of the 1970s would eventually lead to the development of more efficient, as well as more affordable, solar systems.


Today, the use solar panels as an alternative to environmentally unfriendly energy sources has become more and more common in both residential and commercial settings. In regards to energy efficiency and affordability, modern solar cells have come a long way over the past century. The energy efficiency of modern solar cells is around 15-20% compared the 1-2% energy efficiency of Charles Fritts’ first solar cell.

Today, modern solar panels are made of either monocrystalline or polycrystalline silicon, metal, 12 volt wiring, plexiglass, bus wire and glass. When sunlight hits the silicon cell, electrons within the cell begin moving which results in the generation of electrical current that can be used to power your home.

Since Bell laboratories developed the first effective silicon solar cell in 1954, solar systems have become increasingly more affordable and are now commonly used to power residential homes. The affordability of solar panels today can be attributed to the rapidly declining installation costs as well as the substantial tax credits, such as the Solar Investment Tax Credit, that the U.S. government offers to property owners that go solar. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, solar energy use has had an average annual growth rate of 48% over the past 10 years’ while installation costs have decreased by 70% over the same period of time. Today, the total cost of a solar system for an average sized home, without including federal or state incentives, is 55% less than it was in 2010. Furthermore, roughly 25 times more electricity was produced by solar systems in 2019 than in 2010. These drastic changes in the affordability of solar systems and subsequently the number of people that power their homes with solar energy just goes to show that solar truly is the wave of the future.

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