Photovoltaic History: A Timeline of Important Breakthroughs

The discovery of Photovoltaic (PV) cells, the cells that power solar power, dates as far as the 1800s. It all began when a nineteen-year old French scientist, Edmond Becquerel was experimenting with an electrolytic cell composed of two metal electrodes. He discovered that the materials would emit amounts of energy when exposed to light. This observation was the birth of the PV effect.

  • 1839 – Edmond Becquerel discovers PV effect.
  • 1883 – An American inventor, Charles Fritts develops the first PV cell by putting selenium on a metal plate.
  • 1877 – William Adams and Richard Day, both American scientists, publish “The action of light on selenium.”
  • 1888 – An American chemist, Edward Weston receives the first US Patent for Solar Cell.
  • 1888 to 1891 – Aleksandr Stoletov develops the first solar cell using the outer photoelectric effect.


  • 1901 – Nikola Tesla receives two patents for his radiant energy studies
    (1) Method of utilizing radiant energy;
    (2) Apparatus for the utilization of radiant energy.
  • 1904 – Wilhelm Hallwachs develops a semiconductor-junction solar cell.
  • 1905 – Albert Einstein’s theory of “photoelectric effect.”
  • 1916 – Robert Millikan supports Einstein’s theory by providing proof.
  • 1922 – Einstein receives Nobel Prize for his photoelectric effect theory.
  • 1932 – Stora and Audobert discovers a photovoltaic material, Cadmium Selenide.


  • 1954 – An American research company, Bell Labs, showcases first high-power silicon PV cell that has about 6 percent of efficiency.
  • 1955 – Western Electric begins commercialization of silicon PV system design technologies.
  • 1958 – US Vanguard I, the first solar-driven space satellite was launched; The U.S. Signal Corps Laboratories develops a radiation resistant solar cell; Hoffman Electronics’ nine percent efficient solar cell.


  • 1960 – Hoffman Electronics forges a new solar cell with fourteen percent efficiency.
  • 1963 – Sharp Corporation manufactures a feasible photovoltaic module of silicon solar cells; Japan enters the scene, installing a 242-watt PV array on a lighthouse.
  • 1966 – NASA commences Orbiting Astronomical Observatory with a PV array.
  • 1967 – Soyuz 1, the first solar-powered manned spacecraft, was introduced.


  • 1974 – Japan launches “Project Sunshine” to propel PV studies and progress.
  • 1977 – The Department of Energy founded US Solar Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colorado; Solar panels were installed on the White House (President Jimmy Carter’s regime).


  • 1980 – The first thin film solar cell was developed by the Institute of Energy Conversion at University of Delaware. It exceeded 10 percent efficiency.
  • 1985 – The Centre for Photovoltaic Engineering develops a 20 percent efficient silicon cell.
  • 1989 – Reflective solar concentrators are first applied with solar cells.


  • 1991 – Development of the first Efficient Photo electrochemical cell and the Dye-sensitized solar cell.
  • 1992 – A 15.89 percent efficient thin-film cell was created by the University of South Florida.
  • 1994 – Japan starts “70,000 Solar Roofs” PV subsidy program.
  • 1999 – 1000 megawatts of installed PV power


  • 2006 – Solar cell advances, surpassing the 40 percent efficiency.
  • 2007 – Google’s Project Sunroof was launched
  • 2008 – The birth of the inverted metamorphic triple-junction solar cell.
  • 2013 – Modern solar panels installed on the White House