“Photovoltaics” was created over 100 years ago. Why was the invention lost?

Luc Williams

“Purple panes are placed in a metal frame larger than a typical window. Underneath them is a base made of an asphalt-based mixture with a lot of metal plugs in it. One end of each is exposed to the sun, and the one at the back is cool and sheltered.” Today, such a frame filled with something completely different is called a solar panel.

George Cove was a Canadian with Irish roots. He was born in 1863 or 1864. His father Józef was famous in his area as a “mechanical genius”, and his son followed in his footsteps. He obtained many patents, including for a new shape of ship propellers, the use of sea tides, the production of electric clocks and watches, and the improvement of Nikola Tesla's alternating current generator, but he was most proud and had the greatest hopes for “harnessing sunlight to generate electricity.”

Solar panel from over 100 years ago

In February 1905 he submitted an application for “Battery and Thermoelectric Device” and after several months he obtained an American patent. In the description of the device, he argued that for two sunny days it stores enough electricity in lead-acid batteries to illuminate an average (single-family) house for a week. Such assurances caught the imagination, so there were assessments that electricity generated by solar radiation would liberate the nation from poverty, “providing cheap light, heat, energy, freeing many people from the constant struggle for daily bread.”

It was going to be a success. In response to Cove's letters, a group of American investors financed the construction of a research laboratory and factory in Somerville, Massachusetts. Newspapers wrote about the invention, and not only American ones. In May 1909, The World's News, published in Sydney, reported that Cove's device could be built for $20 (approximately $600 today), would operate for 10 years, would provide all the electricity needed for the home, and in addition did not require have no poles or overhead wires around.

However, the invention and its author fell into oblivion. After over a hundred years, it is impossible to determine the direct cause of the disaster, but the events were as ordered by the tabloids of the time. On October 19, 1909, several newspapers, including The New York Herald reported that entrepreneur George Cove had been kidnapped, and the perpetrators demanded that in exchange for his release, he waive his patent rights to – as we call them today – “solar panels” and close his factory. The World newspaper of the same day reported that the kidnappers offered the victim $25,000 and a furnished house. Today it would be approximately USD 1 million (including the house). , so the compensation was not excessive, but how would journalists of that time know about it? The case didn't last long. Cove soon appeared near the Bronx Zoo. He assured that he had sent the kidnappers away empty-handed, adding that he had been kidnapped by “certain capitalists.”

Why did the inventor's company go bankrupt?

The event was so strange that various speculations arose. It could have been a “set” drawing attention to the invention and its creator. There was a catchy hypothesis that the oil and coal business was behind the kidnapping, fearing that energy from the Sun would be half-free, so it would displace minerals. It was also suggested that Thomas Edison, whose Edison Electric Illuminating Company of New York was electrifying the metropolis, could have been behind the event.

After this incident, however, the issue of electricity from the sun began to take a turn for the worse. The Electric Review of June 24, 1910, reported that the Sun Electric Generator Co. sold shares for USD 1 million (today it would be approximately USD 32 million), which a year later were worth USD 5 million. (currently $160 million).

After further corrections and improvements, Cove's device was supposed to be much better than the original, but suddenly business began to wither. On July 8, 1911, the “United States Investor” quoted an anonymous “former employee” claiming that the demonstration installation placed on the roof of one of New York's buildings was a dummy powered by Edison's municipal electrical network. There were also suspicions that Cove's partner was Elmer Ellsworth Burlingame, who was accused of selling worthless shares to make personal profits. To escape prying eyes, the company moved to New Jersey, but shortly thereafter, on August 12, 1911, The Financial World newspaper reported that Burlingame and Cove had been arrested. What happened next is unknown, but the agony of the Sun Electric Generator could not have been long, because otherwise, some traces of it would have been preserved in the press of that time.

It happened as it happened. Cove was not a charlatan, at least in the full sense of the word, although he exaggerated as much as he could. Today it is known that his device could produce electricity, although in minimal quantities. If he had been simple-minded, he might have had a chance to go down in history as a pioneer of “clean” technologies, and perhaps a thousand people know his name. It is assumed that solar technologies have their origins at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, where in 1954 three researchers (Daryl Chapin, Calvin Fuller and Gerald Pearson) created the first silicon-based solar cell. After numerous improvements, the invention changed (as much as) 6%. solar energy into electricity and in 1957 obtained an American patent. Then decades of toil, toil and toil, after which the Sun not only shines, heats, “photosynthesizes”, fascinates, but is also a full-fledged source of electricity.


Luc's expertise lies in assisting students from a myriad of disciplines to refine and enhance their thesis work with clarity and impact. His methodical approach and the knack for simplifying complex information make him an invaluable ally for any thesis writer.