The History of Solar Power: Solar Energy in Ancient Times
The vital role that the sun plays in life on earth has been recognized and celebrated by virtually every culture in human history. All over the world, ancient peoples from the Egyptians in Africa and the Aztecs and Mayans in the Americas, all the way up through the Greeks and Romans in Europe revered the sun, and even sometimes personified and worshipped our star as a deity. Given the immense abundance and usefulness of its energy, it was only a matter of time before our interest in the sun moved from the metaphysical to the practical. And while nowadays we tend to think of solar power as being a relatively new field of study, the truth is that human beings have been harnessing the power of the sun for not just hundreds, but thousands of years.
The first people known to have implemented the use of solar energy on a large scale were the Ancient Egyptians, who used it to heat their homes. They designed and built their houses so that the buildings stored up the sun’s heat during the day and then released it at night. Their building techniques not only kept their homes warmer at night, but also helped regulate a cooler temperature indoors on hot days. Romans and Native Americans both used similar technologies to heat their homes, as well as other types of buildings like Roman bathhouses.
In the 3rd century B.C. the Greeks made history not for using solar energy for domestic comfort, but—allegedly—as a weapon of mass destruction! The story (which to this day is a hot topic of dissention among scientists and historians) goes that a Roman naval force was sailing to sack the Greek citadel of Syracuse. With the help of the inventor Archimedes, the Greeks are reported to have used highly polished metal shields as mirrors to amplify and focus the rays of the sun—and set fire to the advancing ships!
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