History, Science and Society

The most important milestone in the 20th century history of solar photovoltaics is usually recorded as the date in 1954 at which Bell Laboratories publicly announced that three of its scientists – Daryl Chapin, Gerald Pearson and Calvin Fuller – had invented a silicon photovoltaic cell capable of converting enough of the sun’s energy into power to run everyday electronic equipment. On April 25th, 1954, the company held a press conference to announce the invention of the ‘Bell Solar Battery’, a panel of cells that could power a small toy, and the following day they presented it to the National Academy of Sciences in Washington. The New York Times heralded the invention on its front page, writing that the solar cell ‘may mark the beginning of a new era, leading eventually to the realisation of one of mankind’s most cherished dreams – the harnessing of the almost limitless power of the sun for the uses of civilisation’.

Yet this is a very particular account of the history of photovoltaic science and technology. It is a version of history in which agency is stabilised around three white men and one key material (silicon) rather than distributed across the complex network of humans and materials that were necessary for the solar cell to cohere as a successful technology. And it is a version of history in which agency is also spatially located, with the ‘West’ and the scientific laboratory at the centre and the ‘non-west’ on the edge or the periphery. One way of rethinking this history is to see non-western field sites and global locations as critical sites of research, experimentation and testing that have played a pivotal role in the design of the modern solar cell. Indeed the history of photovoltaics is deeply entwined with the history of ‘development’ as a 20th century programme for social and economic change.

Global Locations

The first modern photovoltaic cell was born not out of the challenge of harnessing the power of the sun but was out of the problem of humidity in the world’s tropics. During the Second World War and the Korean War American soldiers fighting in the Pacific had struggled with the care of electronic components and dry cell batteries in extremely humid conditions. In 1952 Bell Laboratories was looking for ways of producing ‘small amounts of intermittent power in remote humid locations’ began to include selenium-based solar cells in their field tests.

The first field tests conducted by Chapin in 1953 were disappointing. Selenium based cells were massively in-efficient, capable of converting only fractional amounts of sunlight into electricity. Chapin was only able to record 4.9 watts per square meter, recording less that 0.5 per cent efficiency. At the suggestion of Gerald Pearson, Chapin switched to using silicon-based solar cells in his experiments, which immediately proved five times more efficient.  Pearson and Fuller worked to improve the conductivity of silicon by introducing gallium, then bathing silicon in lithium, switching from lithium to phosphorous, coating the surface of the cells with a dull plastic so that they were less reflective, and eventually by changing the way they charged the silicon, cutting it into narrow strips, adding arsenic to give it a negative charge, and coating it in boron to give it a positive charge, and treating the cells with an anti-reflective coating. By early 1954 their trials had led to the creation of a solar cell that crossed what was considered the minimum threshold for its viability, an efficiency of 6 per cent, producing 50 watts per square yard.

Yet despite the obvious benefits the new solar cell struggled to find viable applications. The cost of the cells was prohibitive and they had only been able to generate power using the highest-grade silicon. In 1954 the price stood at $380 per pound/$845 per kilo, and a 1 watt cell cost $286. The first solar cell was a technology in search of applications leading Daryl Chapin to ask, ‘What to do with our new baby?’

In the 1950s this search for applications became tied to an emerging discourse of ‘international development’ that had come to prominence in the aftermath of the Second World War. For many people what came to be known as ‘Development’ was first most clearly articulated in the inaugural presidential address made by the new US president Harry S. Truman in 1949. ‘We must embark,’ Truman had said, ‘on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. The old imperialism — exploitation for foreign profit — has no place in our plans. What we envisage is a program of development based on the concept of democratic fair dealing.’ As the anthropologist Arturo Escobar has written, this idea of development introduced a new rationale for intervention in the former colonial world, one that proposed a reconstruction of societies through international financial assistance and technology with the intention of replicating around the globe those conditions necessary to achieve the same standards of living as those enjoyed by an advanced or economically accomplished nation like the US. All that was required to realise this post-war dream of peace and abundance was capital, science and technology. In many respects photovoltaics proved a perfect vehicle for these dreams, and the search for applications for solar technology follows the rise of ‘development’ in post-war geo-politics.

As scientists and engineers struggled to find commercial applications for the silicon-based solar cell they embraced this idea of ‘development’ seeing in the ‘developing world’ not just a need for energy but also a vast potential market. In 1955 Bell Laboratories sold a licence for the commercial manufacture of their silicon solar modules to ‘National Fabricated Products’, a small company that was exploring the commercial potential for solar power outside of Europe and America. The company, as one of its lead technicians later reflected, was driven not just by the idea of providing cheap power in parts of Africa and Asia where power was not readily available but also by the prospect that this market would bring ‘handsome profits’. In the mid 1950s, however, the costs of mass-producing solar modules remained too high. The company was unable to realise its commercial ambitions and eventually in 1956 it was sold. It was not until 1972 when Exxon’s Solar Power Corporation pioneered the low-cost mass production of silicon wafers that the cost dropped far enough for PV solar cells to have viable applications in what was now called the ‘developing world’.


Many of these early attempts to harness photovoltaics to development were focused on West Africa and over the second half of the 20th century this particular region became a testing ground for photovoltaic applications in telecommunications, water pumping for drinking, livestock and irrigation, and lighting. It is here – in this global laboratory – that we find the solar cell first tied to key international development objectives like education and health and we find the separation of the ‘social’ from the ‘technical’.

The first attempts to harness the energy of the sun by development workers in West Africa had focused on the use of solar thermal pumps, which were essentially small steam engines that collected heat between glass plates, vaporised it and used the steam to drive small engines. In 1968 these experiments were taken further with the use of a cadmium sulphide photovoltaic system to power a television at a village school in Gondel, Niger. Funded by the French Government’s national public radio and television agency, the Office for Radiodiffusion Television Francaise (ORTF), this system was intended to demonstrate the practicality of providing solar powered television reception for French-speaking nations across west Africa. Over the following four years the French government installed 123 PV powered televisions in schools across Niger, and students received French language programmes that were broadcast from a production centre in Niamey. As the historian John Perlin has documented, however, photovoltaic applications became definitively tied to aid and international development a decade later in 1977.

During the early 1970s the Sahel region had been devastated by drought. In Mali a private charitable organisation (Mali Aqua Viva) led by Father Bernard Verspieren, a French missionary, ran a campaign to install drinking wells across the country. The pumps required deep excavations to reach the water table, lay around 18 metres beneath the ground. Frustrated by the unreliability of diesel generators and what he saw as the inefficiencies of the manual hand pump which was being championed as an appropriate technology, Verspieren looked for alternatives.

In 1973 he made a personal visit to see the worlds first PV water pump that had been built by a French company Pompes Guinard in Corsica and was so impressed at the lack of mechanical moving parts, and its ability to draw twice as much water as the conventional hand pump he made it his mission to bring photovoltaics to West Africa. He solicited funds from private contributions and from the European Development Fund and was able to procure six panels from Exxon’s Solar Power Company and a 6 inch pump from Pompes Guinard. In July 1977 he used these materials to install the the first solar PV powered water pump in Africa at a Catholic family training centre in the village of Koni, Mali. The installation generated 900 watts of power and pumped produce 30-40 cubic metres of water a day, which was used to fill smaller tanks designed for dissolving a local crop, Kenaf, or to irrigate banana trees. The estimated cost of the installation stood at some $US54,000 which included not just the pump, panels and the tank but also a large wire fence that was built around them.

Three months later a second pump was installed in the village of Nabasso. Where the first had been built primarily for irrigation this pump was built expressly to provide drinking water for some 3000 villagers and their herds of livestock. The pump at Nabasso was inaugurated with considerable ceremony, attracting a crowd of thousands and several invited journalists. ‘Solar power is the answer’, Verspieren told the gathering, ‘It will be your salvation. You’ve seen it, touched it, listened to it – not in a laboratory but in your own backyard.’

Over the following decade, however, West Africa became a field laboratory as French and American government development agencies sought to accrue specialised knowledge about the operation of solar modules under extremes of temperature – here dry and arid rather than humid – and among people who had never previously had access to modern forms of microelectronic equipment. In June 1978, for example, the American Agency for International Development launched their first solar energy project in Mali. In principle the project was aimed at improving the quality of life in rural West Africa and alleviating Mali’s dependence on fossil fuels. But the USAID project was also designed to gain experience from the use of photovoltaics under harsh climatic and physical conditions and in novel social and economic surroundings. Such a project, an early proposal advised, would require anthropologists and ethnographers to be part of the team.

The knowledge of materials and component parts that was derived from these experiments in Mali fed into the global solar industry and informed other projects across Africa. Over the next few years Father Verspieren, for example, traveled to address photovoltaic conventions across Europe and present his experiences from Mali. He was particularly concerned with the deterioration of the laminated surface of solar modules when exposed to extremes of sun and wind and sand in the Sahel. The lamination on the first solar panels installed at Koni and Nabasso had fallen apart and had to be replaced within a few years. Verspieren’s detailed technical report provided a stimulus to discussions about the coating of solar modules and engineers responded by developing a more rugged design and more durable moulded glass panel which more completed sealed the cells and their connections from contaminants. In this way scientific and technical knowledge that was critical to the development of the convention silicon-based solar photovoltaic module as we know it today was produced not in the laboratories spaces of Europe and North America but in field laboratories across the non-western world, where they became linked to an emerging discourse of international development.

In these early experiments with photovoltaics in Mali we also find a separation and stabilisation of the ‘technical’ and the ‘social’. USAID’s original proposal for their project evaluates the success of Mali Aqua Viva’s solar powered water pumps and – in doing so – established a clear distinction between the different kinds of problems and challenges they presented. While the problems at Koni were deemed to have been primarily technical other kinds of problems, like those that emerged at Nabasoo, were deemed to have been ‘more organisational and social’. The duel use of the solar water pump at Nabasso for both drinking water and livestock had created conflicts between herders and villagers. During the dry season in 1978 the water source drew herders from across the region. The animal troughs were frequently drained and herders begin drawing water from the tank meant for human consumption, leading to disputes over water. For observers like USAID the fallout from this project provided vital insight into the challenges of new solar installations and they incorporated lessons about community participation into new solar projects across Africa.


For some people today projects like those in 1970s Mali might appear as monuments to a bygone era of 20th century development.  Yet as we reflect on the lessons to be gained from past experiences we might do well to ask what kind of social and political relationships between poor users, NGOs, global corporations and governments were built into these early solar photovoltaic technologies and what kind of relationships they created.

For their champions these early experiments in West Africa demonstrated the viability of photovoltaics in the developing world and showed that with well-sourced equipment and maintenance solar modules could have life changing effects. For their critics, however, these early experiments also revealed the political economy of post-war international development.

The initial investment cost and the on-going cost of maintenance of these early solar projects was beyond the control of most communities. Solar installations like those in Mali were essentially ‘gifts of aid’ and as such they entrenched hierarchical relationships of dependency between donors and recipients. Users were essentially seen as passive beneficiaries whose identity, knowledge and practices were deemed irrelevant. This passivity was written into the installation, users were unable to physically interact with or manage the solar array and were entirely dependent on the intervention of specialist engineers should something go wrong. As such, they provided a new vehicle through which to confirm and reassert a Euro-American self image of cultural superiority. At the same time, these new overseas markets for solar products fostered much closer symbiotic relationships between American and European state funding agencies and national photovoltaic industrialists and manufacturers.

Reflecting on her experience as a consultant for a French funded photovoltaic lighting project in Burkina Faso the French scholar of science and technology Madelaine Akrich later wrote, ‘Technical objects’, like the photovoltaic cell, ‘have political strength’. They may ‘change’ relationships but they also ‘ stabilise, naturalise, depoliticise and translate relationships’ into other forms. It is in this sense, she wrote, that ‘technical objects build our history for us.’

In the 1970s off the grid applications for solar technology naturalised and depoliticised the role of western donor agencies and states in the ‘development’ of former colonies. In the 2010s, I would argue, we would do well to reflect on the ways that a new generation of off the grid applications for solar photovoltaics are transforming society. Today these applications are driven by a different market based approach, that seeks to expand access to energy through entrepreneurship and access to credit and which treats the poor user as active consumer rather than passive beneficiary of solar technology. Objects like the ultra affordable portable solar lantern that is built for and designed for people living on less than $2 a day are shaping societies in different ways by naturalise the failure of the State and cementing the inevitability and impossibility of large-scale publicly funded energy infrastructure.

Just as global sites of ‘development’ have shaped the history of photovoltaic technology so too we might say technologies like the solar cell have shaped the history and political economy of development.

* This is a version of a presentation given at the Low Carbon Energy for Development Network symposium in Loughborough, April 2012. 

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