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