Photovoltaics Miniseries #10: World’s First Practical Solar Cell Victim to Exigencies of Cold War

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Welcome to our tenth entry about the first practical solar cell. This miniseries is a celebration of the UN’s 2015 Year of Light featuring John Perlin, author of “Let It Shine: The 6000-Year Story of Solar Energy.”

For those who may have missed an episode in this miniseries, here is what has been published:

  1. Author John Perlin Celebrates the Coming Year of Light
  2. Author John Perlin & the Solar Cell
  3. The Pathway to Today’s Solar Revolution: Discovering the Photosensitivity of Selenium
  4. Photovoltaics Discovered in 1875: Interview with Author John Perlin
  5. Photovoltaic Dreaming: First Attempts at Commercializing PV
  6. Einstein: The Father of Photovoltaics – Part 1 
  7. Einstein: The Father of Photovoltaics – Part 2
  8. John Perlin Miniseries #8: Photovoltaics: Saved by Silicon – Part 1
  9. Photovoltaics Miniseries #9: Saved by Silicon – Part 2 

In the last episode looked further at the impact of the semiconductor revolution and its principal material, silicon, which also spurred development of the first practical solar cell.

CleanTechnica: Here we are in the early 1950s. How was development of the solar cell viewed by the public?

Perlin: It evoked great interest. U.S. News and World Report speculated excitedly that the device “may provide more power than all the world’s coal, oil and uranium.”

CleanTechnica: The predominant thinking being that modern civilization was being readied for a new standard of energy?

Perlin: In some respects, yes. A The New York Times article suggested that the discovery could “mark the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realization of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams – the harnessing of the almost limitless energy of the sun for the uses of civilization.”

CleanTechnica: So what happened?

Perlin: The timing of the solar cell discovery did not bode well for success. A month before Bell Laboratories went public with what I regard as the greatest breakthrough in the history of solar energy, America had detonated the first practical hydrogen bomb. Its blast contaminated an area of 7,000 square miles, causing the worst radiological disaster in U.S. history and raising the specter of complete annihilation of the planet. A powerful anti-war movement arose worldwide as a consequence with powerful anti-American overtones.

CleanTechnica: This incident generated numerous strong reactions worldwide, correct?

Perlin: Yes. To diffuse the growing opposition to the buildup of its thermo-nuclear arsenal, the U.S. presented to the world its “Atoms for Peace” program. Then-President Eisenhower said this program would lead “the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.”


CleanTechnica: But you contend that “Atoms for Peace” meant selling nuclear as the panacea to the world’s future energy needs?

Perlin: Yes. To achieve the expressed goal of meeting these future energy needs, Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act of 1954, making available to industry all of the nation’s formerly top-secret nuclear research valued at a minimum of ten billion dollars [one-hundred billion dollars in 2015 dollars] and pledging an additional 450 million dollars [4.5 billion in 2015 dollars] to fund “a program of conducting, assisting and fostering research and development to encourage maximum scientific and industrial progress” toward a nuclear future.

CleanTechnica: And what about solar energy?

Perlin: In contrast, solar received that year in government funding under $100,000. As General Electric, one of the largest recipients of the new nuclear largess, told the American public, the stakes in winning the hearts and minds of the world engulfed in the midst of the Cold War were too high to whine about such discrepancies, for “Where Communism alone has failed,” GE proclaimed in a national advertising campaign, “Communism plus nuclear power might succeed. America’s course is clear.”

PerlinYOL10_ nuclear ch24_05lowres

CleanTechnica: Thus the pathway was built for what was optimistically for a powered world?

Perlin: America’s universal nuclear theology had no need for solar despite its recent resurrection as a promising power source for the future. Newsweek belittled “the sun’s diffuse radiation” as “paltry” when compared with the power of the atom. Just two months after praising the Bell solar breakthrough, the New York Times also joined the nuclear choir, predicting, “Electricity from the atom will keep industry turning and homes lighted for centuries while the energy of the sun will be available after the last atomic fuel is gone,” which pundits estimated maybe between “200 to 1,000 years away.”

The Bell Solar Cell, buried from the public so deeply under all the pro-nuke fallout, led one of its inventor’s to but wonder, “What to do with our new baby.”

Coming next: Solargate: The Nixon Administration shreds the National Science Foundation’s plan for the nation to go solar.

Photos via “Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy.”

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Glenn Meyers

is a writer, producer, and director. Meyers was editor and site director of Green Building Elements, a contributing writer for CleanTechnica, and is founder of Green Streets MediaTrain, a communications connection and eLearning hub. As an independent producer, he's been involved in the development, production and distribution of television and distance learning programs for both the education industry and corporate sector. He also is an avid gardener and loves sustainable innovation.

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