Nothing Really New Under the Sun

22 Jun

Leonardo's solar mirror notes

I’ve spent the last few weeks digging into the long, strange history of solar energy. We humans are the best tool makers this planet has ever seen, and we’re also the most arrogant. Because we always believe (or like to believe) that stuff we invent today is brand, spanking new. But of course it’s not. Not really. Everything comes from somewhere. So, for example, some of the most cutting edge solar power plants use a combination of mirrors and PV solar cells to generate electricity or, in some cases, to make biofuel. It’s cool, cutting edge stuff. But the use of “burning mirrors” dates back at least to the ancient Greeks, who fashioned curved mirrors of polished brass to light ceremonial fires in their temples.  Famous figures such as Leonardo da Vinci and Roger Bacon experimented with using mirrors to light fires and melt metal, as well as lesser known scientists such as Athanasius Kircher (a 17th century German Jesuit priest) and German mechanic Peter Hoesen, who successfully built a parabolic mirror ten feet in diameter.

I’ve found two excellent books on the history of solar energy–Frank Kryza’s The Power of Light: The Epic Story of Man’s Quest to Harness The Sun, and A Golden Thread: 2500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology, by Ken Butti and John Perlin.  I highly recommend these books for anyone interested in learning more about how solar energy technology has evolved over the centuries.

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