The History of Solar Panels: How Long Have We Been Turning Light Into Electricity?

The history of solar panels goes back further than you might think.

In 1839 a nineteen year old by the name of Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel discovered the photovoltaic effect.

This effect is the physical process through which a solar cell converts sunlight into electricity.

The basis for the modern solar cell, however, can more directly be traced back to William Grylls Adams.

Back in 1876, Mr. Adams discovered that selenium generated an electric current when exposed to light.

This important day in solar power history proved that a solid material could change light into electricity without heat or moving parts.

I assume it also gave William some bragging rights over his brother John who discovered Neptune.

Yes that’s right, the man who invented solar electricity had a brother who discovered a planet.

So, what has your family done for the world of science and technology lately?

The selenium solar cells were revolutionary but they were not efficient enough to power electrical equipment.

That chapter of solar panel history wouldn’t begin until 1953 when Bell Laboratories employee Gerald Pearson made a solar cell with silicon instead of selenium. The solar cell was finally ready to be put to work.

solar cell

Unfortunately the solar cell was put to work powering toy subs and model airplanes because any major use of the technology was seen as being prohibitively expensive.

How expensive?

About $300 per watt (a power plant cost 50ยข a watt to build).

Could this be the end for our hero the solar cell? Is it doomed by its hefty price tag?


It seems there was a little thing called the Cold War going on at the time. Satellites were the new surveillance tool in this fight but they needed a reliable power source.

Can you see how this might affect solar panel history?

That’s right, us regular people looked at the $300 per watt cost of the solar cell and said “No thank you”.

Uncle Sam just said “Where did I put my checkbook?”.

This was a turning point in the history of solar panels. The technology developed under the guiding hand of the military industrial complex until, by the late 1960’s, solar cells became the accepted power source for satellites.

Accessible solar electricity on earth seemed as distant as ever, however, until Dr. Elliot Berman designed a solar cell using cheaper materials in the early 70’s. This brought the price down to $20 per watt and made solar feasible in remote locations like off-shore rigs and lighthouses.

The following years saw solar power used by the Coast Guard and the railway companies. Solar panels also began to be used in the developing world for pumping water as well as powering lights, televisions, and radios.

As the price of solar cells dropped over the years the use of solar electric panels became feasible for more situations. This included buildings that were far from power lines, bus shelters, and call boxes.

Now, more and more people are installing solar panels on their rooftops and using solar energy to power their homes. The solar cell industry has increased 200 fold over the last twenty years.

Solar power is achieving mainstream acceptance as we enter a new era in the history of solar panels. As the cost of solar power continues to drop, the future of solar energy just keeps getting brighter.

(To go back even further in the solar story, check out our previous entry on the history of solar power.)