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. Continue reading