Nothing new under the sun

With all the excitement in solar thermal research and industry at the moment, it can be sobering to take a step back and remind oneself that the basic ideas have been around for a long, long time – at least as far back (if the legend is to be believed) as Archimedes, who used a solar concentrator to set his enemy’s ships on fire around 200 BC.

There are several examples of early (by which I mean pre-1970) solar concentrating technologies, and there’s a reasonable amount you can read about them on the internet. To give just a few examples, there’s the Maadi (or Meadi) Project for pumping water (Egypt, 1913), Giovanni Francia’s prototype Fresnel and central receiver systems (Italy, 1960s) and even, disturbingly, a solar furnace that the US Army used to scorch pigs (Massachusetts, 1960s).

The images below, however, date back even further than any of these – all the way to the late 1800s. I’d be interested to hear if you know of any examples in scientific literature that are even older.

Solar trough image from J.Ericsson, Nature, 3 January 1884:

This mechanical device for utilising the sun’s radiant heat is the result of experiments conducted during a series of twenty years … They reflect the sun’s rays towards a cylindrical heater placed longitudinally above the trough. This heater, it is scarcely necessary to state, contains the acting medium, steam or air, employed to transfer the solar energy to the motor.

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Solar dish from Nature, Vol. 26, 1882:

A printing press worked by solar heat had been exhibited in the Tuileries Garden in Paris on the occasion of a fête … The solar generator was one of those devised by M. Abel Pifre, who has improved in some points on the original invention of M. Mouchout. … The steam from the boiler placed in its focus … actuated a Marioni press (on the right). Though the sun was not very ardent, and the radiation was hindered by frequent clouds, the press was worked with regularity from 1 p.m. till 5.30 p.m., printing on an average 500 copies an hour, of a journal specially composed for the occasion, viz. the Soleil Journal.

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If you click on just one link related to the early history of concentrated solar thermal energy, make it this article at Cabinet Magazine. It makes for very entertaining reading – not least for the proposal of using solar power as a way to send messages to Martians.

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