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No. 1321:
Century-Old Solar Collector

Today, an idea whose time had not yet come. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A magazine article begins: "Why should we burn costly, hard-delved coal in power-houses, when we can hitch our trolley cars to the sun?" The article tells about an experimental solar collector. A conical mirror, maybe 35 feet in diameter, concentrates solar rays on a small steam boiler at its center. The boiler supplies a fifteen-horsepower steam-driven water pump.

Now you might be thinking, "So what! Haven't others built collectors like that?" But there's a catch. This article is from the 1901 issue of a magazine called The World's Work. This was before the Wright Brothers, before the Model-T, and before we had a proper theory of how radiation carries energy.

A century ago this collector turned up on an ostrich farm in the remote desert land of Southern California. This was before the movies and before smog. But it was not before oranges. California was already growing a fifth of America's fruit and in dire need of more water. Mulholland had yet to pipe water into the region. For the moment, this solar pump seemed to offer a solution.

It was designed in Boston and sent to California, which the article calls "a land of perpetual sun." It looked just like modern solar collectors. A clock-driven mechanism moved it on tracks and gimbals to keep it pointed into the sun. Eighteen hundred mirrors, three inches wide and two feet long, made up the reflector. It pumped fourteen hundred badly-needed gallons of water a minute.

So what became of a good idea? Long pipelines were about to become Southern California's main water supply. Then, too, the new internal combustion engines arrived. A little 15-HP gasoline motor meant nothing like the capital investment that went into this behemoth. Nor were long-term costs of either oil or coal yet on anyone's mind. As fortunes were made in oil, the clear air over Southern California seemed far beyond the reach of human hands.

Sixteen years before, Samuel P. Langley had written about solar power. Langley was the visionary who didn't quite manage to achieve powered flight before the Wright Brothers did. What he wrote was intelligent, but it was also somewhat overblown:

Future ages may see the seat of empire transferred to regions of the earth now barren and desolated under intense solar heat ... for [we shall] once more people those waste places with the life that swarmed there in the best days of Carthage and ... Egypt ... [Now] man shall no longer worship the sun as a God, but shall have learned to make it his servant.

But those arid countries also sat on oil, and they haven't advanced solar power any further than we have.

The author of this astonishing article finishes with a telling remark. "Sunbeams," he says, have hitherto "danced through all the meshes of the strange nets spread for them by eager hands." The trouble is, sunbeams have continued to dance through the meshes of our own hopes for them, as well.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Millard, F. B., Harnessing the Sun. The World's Works, Vol. I, Nov. 1900 to April 1901, pp. 599-603.

I am puzzled by one claim in the article -- that 15 HP pumped 1400 gallons/minute. A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows the head could not have exceeded four or five feet. If the claim was accurate, this pump was not moving water out of a deep well, but was probably only moving surface water from one level to another.


(From the 1901 The World's Work Magazine)