Solar Energy Innovations From Yesteryear

It's worth recalling that high-tech, solar-powered gadgets are nothing new -- and many of the ideas being batted around today are similar to equally ingenious notions tinkered with decades ago. See the full slideshow at



    Recent news that a Swiss professor has developed a low-cost solar power cell using materials as common and inexpensive as dye squeezed from berries has a lot of people, once again, dreaming of a day when humans will put their big brains to work toward something genuinely useful -- like finding ways to generate cheap, clean, limitless energy using the heat and light from our very own sun.  In the meantime, it's worth recalling that high-tech (and relatively low-tech) gadgets for capturing and employing solar energy are nothing new, and many of the ideas being batted around today are similar to equally ingenious notions floated and tinkered with for decades.

    Teach Your Children Well

    A curious young boy watches as a salesman demonstrates a solar battery -- in 1955. 
    J. R. Eyerman/Time & Life Pictures

    'World's First Sun-Heated Home'

    A Ralph Morse photograph of what LIFE celebrated as the "world's first sun-heated home" in a 1949 issue of the magazine -- a house in Dover, Mass., that featured an enormous "heat trap" consisting of two separated panes of glass with a black metal panel between them.  "The sun's short heat waves go through the glass and warm the metal to as much as 150 degrees. At this temperature the metal gives off long heat waves that can not easily go back out through the glass."
    Ralph Morse./Time & Life Pictures

    Mighty Solar Furnace in the Pyrennees

    The main mirror (flat, foreground) and the parabolic mirror of a French "solar furnace" built atop a 17th century fortress in the 1950s. The main mirror -- a 43-foot X 34-foot giant -- deflects rays of sunlight to the 31-foot parabolic shell, which then focuses the sunlight even further, intensifying it to a point where it generates temperatures in excess of 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
    Nat Farbman/Time & Life Pictures

    Smokes Gets in Your Eyes

    "When LIFE photographer N. R. Farbman blew some cigarette smoke into one of the ... furnaces he produced a pattern of sunlit particles that shows how the rays are focused by the mirrors," according to the LIFE magazine article on the French solar furnace.
    Nat Farbman./Time & Life Pictures

    The Army's Very Own Solar Furnace

    The U.S. Army developed a solar furnace in the 1950s at a site outside of Boston, where they ran tests designed to simulate conditions during a nuclear blast. As a LIFE magazine article at the time (perhaps a bit too sanguinely) observed: "The Army's scientists are able to duplicate, under safe laboratory conditions, the intense heat generated by nuclear blasts and to test materials that could be used on battlefields to shield soldiers against a nuclear attack."
    Joseph Scherschel/Time & Life Pictures

    Solar Boating

    Dr. Max Shick sits in his motorboat while demonstrating the solar panels that power it, circa 1959.
    Central Press
Image 1 of 6