Solar Power Is on the Rise? We Suggested Harnessing the Sun’s Heat Back in 1866

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Printing press driven by solar energy in 1882

“The Great Energy Transition to Solar and Wind Is Underway,” declared a headline yesterday on the environmental-news website EcoWatch. Thanks in no small part to Obama-era government subsidies, renewable energy appears poised for a much-belated breakthrough over the next few years.

Yet it cannot be understated how much time has been lost, as we can see from a little feature that appeared in The Nation’s issue of May 29, 1966.

The item ran in the magazine’s column on scientific issues under the headline “UTILIZATION OF THE SUN’S HEAT.”

Referring to a Nation piece some weeks earlier about “the ultimate exhaustion of the coal fields…and the possibility of substituting other sources of power for the fossil fuel which is now so important an element in the existing order of human society,” the item summarized the 1830s experiments of the English scientist and inventor John Herschel. On an expedition near the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa—where, the Nation column noted, “the sun pours down its rays without hindrance”—Herschel trapped the sun’s heat in a mahogany box he covered with glass and painted black on the inside. He then put uncooked food in the box and waited to see what would happen.

 

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