Solar powered living has become an increasingly popular subject as global climate changes and fossil fuel issues have moved to the forefront of environmental news. In our modern days, we are beginning to realize how our purchases are impacting our planet. We are seeing people stand up and stand out when they choose to purchase no-waste products, local organic food, eco-friendly homes, natural cleaning products, and even solar panels. Actually, ancient civilizations found ways to meet their needs naturally for thousands of years without harming the planet!
We generally think of solar-powered living as a relatively new subject, but the first solar connector was built in 1767, becoming the basis for all research for solar power in the 19th century. But dig further back into history, and we find that solar powered living pre-dates all of modern society.
Our Celebrated Star
Our star, the sun, is our constant source of light, energy, and warmth, and it has been celebrated and revered by human cultures since the beginning of recorded history. The sun offers us enough energy every hour to meet world demand for a year. Solar energy is free of pollutants, it never runs out, it is consistent, and it is accessible to most people on our planet.
With deep connections to nature, some civilizations revered the sun; some worshiped it; all respected it. As time passed, our interest shifted from metaphysical to more practical interests. How can we use this for our benefit? Surprisingly, ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans created technologies so sophisticated they rival our own modern technological advances, and we are just beginning to understand some of their systems for harnessing energy and heat.
Ancient Solar Energy
One of the most advanced uses of sunlight in Ancient Egypt was for religious practices. Imhotep, a High Priest of the Sun God Ra, used a special type of papyrus and a mixture of carious herbs, minerals, and sage to help capture sunlight much in the same way that we use solar panels today.
The Native Americans, ancient Chinese, Greeks, Romans, and pueblo peoples harnessed the sun to heat their homes in various ways, ranging from building their houses into the side of cliffs to stay warm at night to putting in the first windows to allow natural light in the home while trapping the sun’s warmth. However, it was the ancient Egyptians who were the first to implement the use of solar energy on a large scale, by heating their homes through the sun’s energy, which they captured in black pools of water. They designed their homes to store heat during the day, and release it at night, applying the benefits of what we now refer to as “passive solar design”. Later, the great Greek philosopher Socrates once wrote, “In houses that look toward the south, the sun penetrates the portico in winter.” Romans advanced the art by covering building openings that faced the south with glass or mica to hold in heat during winter months and applied this same method in their bathhouses.
Ancient Photovoltaic Effect
We have found clues from the 7th century BC that magnifying glasses were used to make fires in the same way that we do today, by directing light through a magnifying glass and focusing on a specific spot. This led to other ideas about how to harness and use the power of the sun.
According to writers who chronicled the life of Archimedes, a Greek inventor and mathematician, he used giant parabolic mirrors (and many small mirrors) to defeat Roman ships that were attacking Syracuse. He would re-direct sunlight from the mirrors onto battle ships, setting fire to them before the ships reached the shore. Though there is no concrete proof of this, the US Department of Energy and other scientists around the world have set up and conducted experiments similar to the story of Archimedes and were successful in setting a ship ablaze.
Modern Civilization… History Repeats Itself
As we have explored our history and how ancient civilizations understood and implemented solar energy, it’s interesting how history truly does repeat itself. Modern technologies today are striving towards harnessing the power of the sun and protecting the Earth. One of our biggest challenges today is figuring out how to collect and use sunlight in a way that is easily accessible and affordable to the masses. We’ve seen how ancient cultures found a way to harness and apply the benefits of the sun to entire kingdoms for thousands of years in ways without harming the environment. In the last hundred years or so, we have made incredible strides. It is fascinating to watch these advances, and we are all excited to be a part of the tipping point in environmentally-friendly natural energy use.