Long before the first Earth Day was celebrated on April 22, 1970, generating awareness about the environment and support for environmental protection, scientists were making the first discoveries in solar energy. It all began with Edmond Becquerel, a young physicist working in France, who in 1839 observed and discovered the photovoltaic effect— a process that produces a voltage or electric current when exposed to light or radiant energy. A few decades later, French mathematician Augustin Mouchot was inspired by the physicist’s work. He began registering patents for solar-powered engines in the 1860s. From France to the U.S., inventors were inspired by the patents of the mathematician and filed for patents on solar-powered devices as early as 1888.
Take a light step back to 1883 when New York inventor Charles Fritts created the first solar cell by coating selenium with a thin layer of gold. Fritts reported that the selenium module produced a current “that is continuous, constant, and of considerable force.” This cell achieved an energy conversion rate of 1 to 2 percent. Most modern solar cells work at an efficiency of 15 to 20 percent. So, Fritts created what was a low impact solar cell, but still, it was the beginning of photovoltaic solar panel innovation in America. Named after Italian physicist, chemist and pioneer of electricity and power, Alessandro Volta, photovoltaic is the more technical term for turning light energy into electricity, and used interchangeably with the term photoelectric.
Read more: A Brief History of Solar Panels