History of Photovoltaics

In 1839, 19-year-old Edmund Becquerel, a French experimental physicist, discovered that certain materials would produce small amounts of electric currents when exposed to light. He is credited with discovering the “photovoltaic effect” – the basic physical process through which a solar cell converts sunlight into electricity. From that point on, understanding how to actively employ the sun’s power for the use of mankind became a subject of focused scientific inquiry. In 1905, Albert Einstein offered the first theoretical explanation of the phenomenon of photovoltaic (PV) effect; he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1921 for his efforts. In 1877, William G. Adams, a British professor of Natural History, built the first primitive solar cells.

The focus of innovation, then as it is today, was how to build the productivity of solar technologies for real-life applications. In 1954, Bell Labs created the first solar photovoltaic device to produce a useful amount of electricity. By 1958, solar cells were being used in small-scale scientific and commercial applications, including the space program.

The energy crisis of the 1970s spurred major interest in solar technology, but prohibitive prices (approximately 30 times current prices) made large-scale applications unfeasible. Industry developments and research during this period made PV feasible for remote applications, especially for the telecommunications industry, and a cycle of increasing production and decreasing costs began, which continues today.

The new millennium has seen continued research and production advances that have made PV more cost-effective in a rapidly growing number of areas. Today, products such as solar batteries and solar heating panels are commonplace, while the future hints at such exciting, paradigm-changing developments as solar-powered cars.


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