A Brief History of Photovoltaics: How Did it All Begin?

May 12, 2010

What is photovoltaics? How did it all begin? Ask the average novice in the field, and you would probably have him or her stumped.

The study of photovoltaics dates back to 1839 when the photovoltaic effect was first discovered. Credit for this amazing discovery goes to French physicist Alexandre Edmond Becquerel, who stumbled upon it while conducting experiments with electrodes and electrolyte.


However, the first solar cells weren’t discovered until 1873, which was triggered when Willoughby Smith observed the photovoltaic effect in selenium, shortly after which another scientist named William Adams and his student discovered the photovoltaic effect caused by illuminating a junction that occurs between selenium and platinum. These discoveries were the platform for the first selenium solar cell construction in 1877.

By the early 1900s, theories were already beginning to be formed to explain the photovoltaic effect. Famous scientist Albert Einstein is responsible for having written and compiled the most theoretic work on the matter, for which he earned the Nobel Prize in 1921. Later on, Robert Milkan was able to prove Einstein’s theories through experiments.

By 1918, the construction of the first silicon solar cells was prompted by Polish scientist Jan Czochralski, who engineered a process for monocrystalline silicon production.

By the 1950s, more intensive and in-depth research was conducted on expanding knowledge regarding photovoltaics. Germanium solar cells emerged in 1951 care of Dr. Dan Trivich, and by the time 1955 to 1960 rolled around, the world saw the emergence of the first solar powered cars and satellites.

With these discoveries in mind, photovoltaics enthusiasts began holding regular conferences regarding the subject. The United Nations was part of this group, having held a conference regarding solar energy application in 1961.

In 1963, the first solar modules were developed by Sharp Corporation by creating the first usable photovoltaic modules made from silicon solar cells.

Come the 1970s, many photovoltaic companies started cropping up. The list includes Solar Power in 1972, Solarex Corporation in 1973 and Solec International and Solar Technology International in 1975.

Soon, the benefits of photovoltaics and solar power was experienced in rural areas, and when the 1980s rolled around, there were large standalone photovoltaic systems ready for use.

With such a rich and fascinating history behind it, one can only admire how the study of photovoltaics has progressed and developed since the very first discovery.

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