Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy, By John Perlin

Charles Pope explains that he wrote his book Solar Heat, published in 1903, because “some call to the people is needed … to arouse interest … [in] ‘catching the sunbeams’ and extracting gold from them.”

To accomplish his goal, he tells his readers, he has endeavored “to trace the history of attempts and successes in the utilization of solar heat[;] … discuss ways and means; and attempt to arouse his readers to give to the matter their energy and invention, their brain and capital; that we may very soon see solar enginery take its place by the side of steam enginery and electrical enginery and gas enginery in the public estimation, in technical schools, in mechanical journals, and in myriads of practical, labor-saving constructions.”

More than 100 years later I have attempted the same by writing Let It Shine.

Many believe that solar energy is a late-twentieth-century phenomenon, yet 6,000 years ago the Stone Age Chinese built their homes so that every one of them made maximum use of the sun’s energy in winter. So begins the story of the genesis of solar energy told in Let It Shine: The 6,000-Year Story of Solar Energy, the world’s first and only comprehensive history of humanity’s use of the sun. Because so few have attempted a comprehensive history of solar energy, page after page of this book brings to light information never before unearthed.

Twenty-five hundred years ago, for example, the sun heated every house in most Greek cities. Years later Roman architects published self-help books about using solar energy to show people how to save on fuel as firewood became scarce and as fleets scoured the known world for much-needed supplies of wood. During the renaissance, Galileo and his contemporaries planned the construction of solar-focusing mirrors to serve as the ultimate weapon to burn enemy fleets and towns. Leonardo entertained more peaceful applications. He aimed at making his fortune by building mirrors a mile in diameter to heat water for the woolen industry. Much later, during the Industrial Revolution, engineers devised sun-powered steam engines to save Europe from paralysis should it run out of fossil fuels. In 1767, a Swiss polymath modeled global warming by trapping solar heat in a glass-covered box in the same way that carbon dioxide traps solar heat above the earth. Using the same type of glass-covered box to harvest solar energy, enterprising businessmen established a thriving solar water-heater industry in California beginning in the 1890s! And as electricity began to power cities, the first photovoltaic array was installed on a New York City rooftop in 1884.

A hundred and thirty years later, Let It Shine brings to light documents suppressed by the Nixon, Carter, and Reagan administrations that, had the public and Congress known about them at the time, would have permitted solar energy to assume a much larger role in the American energy mix.


Let It Shine presents the step-by-step development of solar architecture and technology. By providing the background for and illuminating the process of discovery, this book permits a deeper understanding of how solar-energy applications have evolved and performed. The book is more than a technological treatise, though. It presents the context in which these developments occurred and the people who made the solar revolution possible, revealing a whole new group of unknown technological pioneers, as well as identifying people famous for accomplishments other than in their work as solar-energy advocates and technologists. No one today thinks of Socrates as a solar-energy promoter, for example. Yet the author Xenophon, in his work Memorabilia, records Socrates presenting a basic plan for a solar house. Vitruvius, a Roman still famous today as the architect of architects, transmitted the wisdom of the Greeks on building in relation to the sun. The first aspiring solar-energy entrepreneur was