Solar-Powered Steam Engines, An doubtful Hallmark Of The Victorian Age


When most of us think of solar strength, it’s those gray silicon panels that provide energy to roadside devices on desert highways in Arizona or Nevada that come to mind, not steam engines in the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. Solar strength is a occurrence of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, not the nineteenth. Or is it?

The history of solar strength truly goes back two millennia. It achieved a peak in popularity among engineers and inventors back in that period of wondrous scientific adventure that blossomed in the mid to late 1800s.

Steam-pushed trains rolled along elevated railways in American cities and urban streets were newly lit by electricity. It was then that scientific visionaries once again looked skyward for a new source of inexhaustible energy. The story of solar strength in the Victorian Age is one that is seldom told. Is a gripping tale, and part of it already has a direct personal connection with Abraham Lincoln.

The Swedish born engineer and inventor John Ericsson made a name for himself in the United States when he produced, for the Union Army, the iron-clad battleship Monitor. This is the warship that defeated the Confederate CSS Virginia (better remembered today by the name given to it by Union forces — the Merrimack). It was Ericsson, as part of a contract awarded to him by President Lincoln himself, who designed and built the Monitor, which confronted the Merrimack at the Battle Of Hampton Roads in March, 1862, producing a Union victory that many historians believe was a decisive turning point in the Civil War.

John Ericsson used his shipbuilding and other engineering skills to help finance design work that was far more important to him than ships, but that made him no money. Ericcson was obsessed with the creation of what he termed a “sun motor,” by which he meant a steam engine powerful enough to do useful work by conversion of sunlight into mechanical energy. He succeeded in making several prototypes.

Ericsson’s solar machines had three main features. First, he designed a conical mirror to concentrate sunlight on a central axis (think of an upside-down umbrella with the manager pointed directly at the sun — the mirror was in the concave hollow of the umbrella, reflecting sunlight toward the stalk). He built a tube-shaped boiler in the focus of the mirror attached to a small steam engine.

“Turned to the sun,” Ericcson explained to a newspaper interviewer in 1870, “the light is concentrated on the metal tube in much the same way a magnifying glass can focus a hot point of light on a sheet of paper to set it alight.”

Ericcson was able to make a device that ran a piston-pushed steam engine generating a few horsepower. Though not a toy, it was useful only for running small machinery such as a lathe or an industrial fan. Scaling up was a problem because the size of the mirror became unwieldy.

Ericsson’s work never got much beyond the large-extent form stage, but it was he who provided the inspiration for a man of much grander, some would say grandiose, ambitions. This was Frank Shuman, a Brooklyn-born, self-educated inventor who aspired to make a 1000-horsepower solar-powered steam engine the size of a city block to pump water from the Nile River onto parched Egyptian cotton fields.

Frank Shuman had become a multi-millionaire before the age of 30 by solving a serious and deadly problem that plagued aim stations and other large public buildings in America. Before cheap indoor lighting, all these buildings had huge glass skylights to illuminate their interiors, and when snow or wind — or a rock thrown by a malicious teenager — shattered the glass skylight, spear-like particles rained down on those below like weapons, maiming and sometimes killing them. Newspapers from the 1850s and 1860s are complete of such stories.

Shuman’s solution? A product he called “safety glass” which he manufactured by making a sandwich of two sheets of inexpensive Pittsburgh plate glass held together with a clear compound of rubber cement. The safety glass did not shatter into a million pieces when it broke. Rather, it crumpled up much like a squeezed sheet of paper. Safety glass is used to this day in automobile windshields and safety goggles. Shuman was richly rewarded for this life-saving invention, which allowed him, like Ericcson before him, to devote all of his time and personal wealth to his pet obsession: enormous solar powered steam engines.

Why are so few of us today aware of Frank Shuman and John Ericsson? Perhaps it is because the science we remember from the 19th century, the well-known stories of Edison and Marconi, Diesel and Westinghouse, is the science that has become mainstream, the science that impacts our daily lives. The history of solar strength a century ago has been forgotten, perhaps because too many already today dismiss solar as a marginal technology, one that doesn’t (or maybe can’t) have a transformative impact on our lives.

Fortunately, there are several good non-technical books on the market and in libraries that recount this fascinating story of solar strength before 1900. A theme of many of these books is that solar steam technology developed more than a century ago is finally becoming mainstream. Far too many of us nevertheless think that story of solar strength began at the end of the Second World War.

Solar-powered steam fell into the doldrums after World War I, but now, as many Californians who, like me, have traveled by Barstow can see at first hand, solar steam is experiencing a timely revival The solar-powered steam plants in Barstow and nevertheless others in Spain and other sunny nations can produce 12 megawatts of electricity, enough to strength 10,000 houses, and it appears that solar-powered steam may once again give other forms of energy a challenge.

Perhaps someday solar steam engines will already pump life-giving water onto Egyptian cotton fields? History has shown us that it is never a good idea to underestimate the strength of technology and perseverance.

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