Photo voltaic optimism and coal alarmism a century in the past – extra watts with it?

Out of masterresource

By Robert Bradley Jr – April 19, 2023

“The supply of coal and oil, [Frank Shuman] thought would eventually be exhausted. ‘One thing I am sure of,’ he wrote prophetically in a 1914 Scientific American article, ‘is that the human race must finally harness the direct power of the sun or revert to barbarism.’”

The energy story brings perspective and caution to the real prospects of diluted, intermittent energies becoming mainstays of the 21st century. The wisdom of history also belies the notion that solar (and wind) are fledgling industries that need “temporary” government subsidies. [1]

I recently came across a historical article about an early solar entrepreneur, Frank Shuman, written nine years ago by Christopher Dougherty for a Philadelphia magazine. Following are excerpts from Frank Shuman: Finding the Future in Tacony A Century Ago.

Nearly a century ago, Philadelphia solar energy pioneer Frank Shuman toiled in the dark, dreaming of – and building – a solar-powered device that he believed would change the way the world generates energy and works…. Shuman’s “Sun Engine” is a poignant reminder that while humanity has been slow to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, we certainly have not lacked the technology or vision to do so. On the sprawling lawn between an ivy-covered house and workshop on Disston Street and Ditman Street, Shuman integrated his in-depth knowledge of glass, optics and convection heating to create a powerful array that can do the real work.

A consummate inventor with 64 patents to his name, Shuman has closely followed international developments in solar energy. In 1906 he stopped controlling the sun’s heat… he insulated boxes, built semi-convex reflectors around them to concentrate the sun’s rays, put them on pivots to follow the sun’s path, put his water in a vacuum to lower it Boiling Point and – in a major breakthrough – attached a low-pressure steam engine to the assembly.

In the early 20th century, Philadelphia was an unlikely location for solar technology; The city was arguably a research and development center for fossil fuel use for most of the 19th century, as well as a major consumer of coal and producer of refined oil products. Beginning in the early 19th century, the two seats of scientific wisdom, the American Philosophical Society and the Franklin Institute, popularized new techniques and methods of burning the always abundant anthracite coal….

For Shuman, the rejection of solar energy meant a social catastrophe. The problem was simply mathematical: there are finite resources like coal and oil, while the power of the sun was infinite. Coal and oil supplies, he said, would eventually run out. “One thing I am sure of,” he wrote prophetically in a 1914 Scientific American article, “is that mankind must finally harness direct solar power or return to barbarism.”

Based on the performance of his device, he argued that a 20,250 square mile field in an unpopulated part of the African Sahara would produce the same amount of energy as all the coal mined in 1909. Showing an understanding of the social value of solar energy, he urged “…all far-sighted engineers and inventors to work in this direction”, not only for their own benefit, but “for the eternal good of mankind”.

Frederick Blount Warren, writing for Technical World Magazine in 1907 after a visit to Tacony, was more detailed in listing the benefits of solar energy:

And now suppose we would take a moment to consider the changes that will be effected when solar energy is as advanced as the steam engine is now… Health and purity would again have a foothold in the Finding constitutions of future generations….

Engineering News featured Shuman in 1909, Nature Magazine did so in 1912, and the New York Times proclaimed it in a 1911 article [a] “The method of using the sun is found; The engineer says Frank Shuman from Philadelphia solved the problem.” ….

Final comment

Hope springs forever. The idea that the sun’s energy can be converted into electricity because it’s only there to be concentrated is naïve. There is such a thing as physics to explain how the sun’s work has created dense, reliable material over the centuries share of potential energy versus a diluted, intermittent Flow from the sun.


[1] As Milton and Rose Friedman warned, “The infant industry argument is a smokescreen. The so-called infants never grow up.” Free to choose (1979), pp. 5–6.


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