John Perlin, “Let It Shine: The 6,000 Year Story of Solar”

book, 2013

John Perlin’s new book is the most complete history of solar power ever written and represents a lifetime of research on the part of its author. As Perlin explains in the preface, it is a greatly expanded version of his 1980 book, “A Golden Thread,” incorporating an extra thirty years of research.

Perlin’s book puts solar technology in perspective. 6,000 years ago the Chinese had not only perfected basic solar architecture, but were actually designing and implementing entire solar cities! These cities were designed such that all major buildings faced south and remained unobstructed by each other. The sun was used to tell time, keep track of the seasons, and to ignite the morning’s cooking and heating fires. Carefully designed eves blocked sun in the summer and let it enter in the winter. These principles were also put to use in ancient Greece, where even Socrates praised the wisdom of good solar house design. Aeschylus listed it as one trait that differentiated the civilized from the barbarians.

What happened?

The 6,000 year history of solar reveals a disheartening pattern: a few individuals or societies understand the importance of solar as a sustainable energy source and develop innovative new technologies and techniques to eliminate or mitigate dependence on other fuels, only to be forgotten, deliberately sabotaged, or rendered economically uncompetitive by temporarily depressed prices for “mainstream” fuels. Later, new visionaries rise to the occasion, but largely reinvent the wheel. The history of solar is a history of discontinuities. Europe reverted to decidedly non-solar architecture and city planning in the Middle Ages, generating cramped, dark, cold living conditions that oppressed the working classes in particular. Great advances in solar steam power in the early 20th century were on the verge of being deployed on a massive scale by the British and German governments (particularly in Africa), when the outbreak of World War I dashed all such utopian projects. Great interest in solar power in the Middle East and California dissipated when oil was discovered in exactly these regions. A renewed solar design movement in Germany in the 1920s was crushed when the Nazi’s came to power and declared it “Jewish architecture.” The hugely successful Day And Night company made solar hot water heaters popular in the U.S., but jumped on the natural gas bandwagon in 1926 and converted their product to run on fossil fuels instead of the sun. A surge of interest in solar homes in the U.S. directly after WWII was overwhelmed by lowered electricity costs in the late 1940s and successful campaigns by utility companies to drive up consumption by instilling a desire to “live better electrically.” Widespread interest and innovation in solar technologies in the 1970s was defunded and ridiculed by the Reagan administration and generally marginalized by the neoliberal economics and ethos of the 1980s.

Nonetheless, there have been many brilliant innovations in the history of solar technology, which Perlin enthusiastically documents in painstaking detail. Some highlights:

  • Chinese yang-sui, a parabolic dish capable of lighting fires from the sun alone. Invented approximately 1,000 BCE.
  • Window glass, invented by the Romans in the first century CE. This allowed sunlight (short wavelength) to pass into a building, but prevented it from escaping again as heat (long wavelength).
  • Zur Sonne nach Mittag sollten alle Hauser der Menschen gerichtet seyn [All people should face their houses to the midday sun], the first book written entirely on solar design, by Bernhard Christoph Faust in Germany, 1824.
  • The first solar cell, made out of selenium by Charles Fritts in 1883. This was the first device to make use of “photoelectricity,” or the production of electricity not from heat, but from light.
  • The Climax, the world’s first commercial solar hot water heater. Invented by William J. Bailey in Los Angeles, 1909.
  • The p-n junction, which made the silicon solar cell and silicon transistor possible. Invented by Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson at Bell Labs in 1954.

Perlin’s book is not a social or conceptual history of solar. It confines itself to the domains of technical, scientific, and commercial history. In this sense its innovation narratives are traditionally rendered. The chief interest here is the exhaustive completeness of Perlin’s research and text, the generous collection of illustrations, period advertisements, and photographs, and the palpable excitement with which he invests the text’s many fascinating snapshots of innovation and the heady dreams of solar pioneers.

Finally, Perlin has unearthed some surprising discoveries. MIT did pioneering solar design research in the 1940s and ’50s, testing out various solar heating systems and finding ways to improve them. They retrofitted several buildings and conducted long-term studies, which culminated in a specially built solar house. Unfortunately, in 1961 the university abandoned the project.

Again, Let It Shine is not a political history; however, Perlin has uncovered some surprising government documents in his research, affording us a few glances into the politics that have sidelined solar funding at the federal level. In 1973 the Nixon administration completely misrepresented a report from the National Science Foundation titled “The Nation’s Energy Future,” which suggested that solar energy would play an increasingly large roll in the U.S.’s future energy portfolio, provided that solar research was adequately funded. Nixon administration’s revised version, issued by the Atomic Energy Commission, along with his final budget proposal for Congress, reversed the NSF’s findings, suggesting that solar funding was pointless. Those who were surprised by this and asked to see the data from the NSF subpanel on solar that supported such a dim view of solar were told that no such report existed. Jimmy Carter, popularly viewed as a friend to solar, actually rejected the only large-scale plan for government support of solar, an aggressive buydown of photovoltaic equipment for the Depart of Defense. Though it was generated by the Federal Energy Administration’s Task Force on Solar energy Commercialization and supported by the Department of Defense, Carter killed the plan before it even went to Congress. Ronald Reagan, of course topped both Nixon and Carter. On the day of his inauguration, the report from a study funded by the Department of Energy (to the tune of $250,000) and conducted by the consulting firm Arthur D. Little landed on Reagan’s desk. The report, titled “Review of the Demonstration Program of Solar Heating and Cooling Technologies,” urgently recommended increased government spending on solar research and “outlined high expectations for what solar energy could accomplish.” Reagan’s team not only buried the report, but ordered all copies destroyed, and threatened Arthur D. Little with zero compensation “if any word gets out” (Perlin 387). Reagan’s strategy was successful, and nothing more was heard of this report until Perlin uncovered one of the only remaining copies, held privately by an Arthur D. Little staff member.

Let It Shine reminds us that solar technology and innovation have a very long history. Recent successes and failures must be placed in the context of this larger movement that has had high and low points throughout these past 6,000 years. The dream of abundant, de-centralized, clean energy has driven many innovators and users, but has faced equally energetic opposition from many quarters. The fate of solar innovation and deployment has correlated closely to its usefulness to capital and power in any given period. This disheartening fact that emerges when we take the long view of solar history is unsurprising, but all the more distressing in the face of the passionate advocacy of solar on the part of Perlin and the many individuals he chronicles. While solar will continue to rise and fall according to the whims of capital and politics, the history chronicled in Perlin’s book suggests that we must take action and seek a better path to solar innovation. The deep history of solar advocacy, innovation, and deployment in both Germany and China offer rays of hope. It is clear, however, that the rest of the world must catch up and accelerate the painfully slow process of transforming into a global (if heterogeneous) solar culture. A good place to start would be to learn a few more of the lessons of 6,000 years of solar history.


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