Dawn in the Desert
Natural Energy was screamingly obvious a century ago, and was decisively demonstrated, then obscured by the intervention of dire history. It was a lovely discovery to find that by 1913 all the engineering had been put in place by American inventor, Frank Shuman, to harvest 40% of the energy of the solar radiation hitting his solar collection troughs.
We talked right at the beginning of our notes, of Henry George’s insights in Progress and Poverty being what the Americans call a no-brainer. The story of natural energy harvesting has been another no-brainer, another enormous missed opportunity for wisdom in the world. And it was another visionary American, Frank Shuman, who did the engineering and the designing and the sums, and triumphantly demonstrated it in action in Egypt in 1913.
John Adolphus Etzler had glimpsed it in 1833, and it was a no-brainer to some like Augustin Mouchout in France, in the 1860s, that the resources of the world would eventually run out, and he and others strove to harvest the very obvious energy of the sun. In 1866, Mouchot presented a parabolic solar trough. Frank Shuman continued the earlier work and brought it to shining reality in 1913, in a work that stunned those who saw it.
Interestingly, Shuman was another Philadelphian, and a younger contemporary of Henry George. There doesn’t seem to be any suggestion that they knew of each other. Sadly, unlike Mark Twain, we can’t claim Frank Shuman as a Single Taxer – that would have been good – but clearly a man driven by a love of humanity and a concern for its future. And just like Henry George, Frank Shuman’s work is momentous forgotten history.
Frank Shuman was a very successful inventor in early 20th century USA with a long list of patents. He had become convinced that humanity’s future rested on the power of the Sun, and he set out to perfect its collection in a cost-effective way and urgently prove its case. He spent some years perfecting his sun engine in his workshop on Ditman Street in Philadelphia, where it became a big attraction for crowds of visitors. The 3.5 horsepower steam engine (about 2.5 KW) worked so well he left it running through the winter, and it kept working away, even on bright days in January.
He had realised that, in a simple trough, if it could be so perfectly insulated that none of the solar energy received in the trough escaped as heat, very soon the temperature in the trough would reach thousands of degrees. He achieved 40% insulation.
He was itching to scale his ideas up and, in 1913, he gained a commission to build the world’s first solar power station at the Cairo suburb of Maadi, on the banks of the River Nile. And here it is, the world’s first:
He assembled the plant in a few months, cheaply, using local materials, and a simple design, with elegant systems to absorb the stresses of expansion and contraction in the hot sun, and for the seven rows of collectors to track the sun as it moved across the sky. The rows of curved mirrors rested on metal cradles and held before the raging Egyptian sun. The sun’s rays were reflected onto a thin glass pipe filled with water, producing steam pressure that drove pumps Excess hot water stored in a large insulated tank kept the plant running for 24 hours a day. This was 1913.
A grand opening was assembled, attended by Lord Kitchener, British Consul-General and administrator of Egypt, and ambassadors and other dignitaries. After a splendid lunch, he set his collectors to collecting and, utilising the power of the sun falling on a few acres of the Earth, 6,000 gallons of water a minute started gushing from the Nile into the surrounding fields.
This was a heady success; Shuman stood before the world’s first commercial scale solar power station, using natural energy to do work that couldn’t previously be done without expensive fuel imports. Shuman had delivered, and he could point to his creation and spell it out to the world:
(images: Wikipedia; New York Times screenshot, 1913)
Straight away, the implications were evident to his audience. The mightily impressed Lord Kitchener gave Shuman 30,000 acres in British Sudan on which to build a much larger solar plant. The German government, whose ambassador had attended the opening, straight away gave Shuman a $200,000 contract to build plants in Namibia.
The full story is here and here . . .
And this is how it was reported at the time in The Egyptian Gazette:
Frank Shuman had also said:
Solar power is now a fact and no longer in the “beautiful possibility stage. [It will have] a history something like aerial navigation. Up to twelve years ago it was a mere possibility and no practical man took it seriously. The Wrights made an “actual record” flight and thereafter developments were more rapid. We have made an “actual record” in sun power, and we hope for quick developments.
So, actual record, Harry Shuman’s feeling starts to strongly recall Henry George’s: look, it’s there, it’s obvious, it’s demonstrated, and it’s obviously what’s going to happen now because its sense is undeniable. How could the world possibly take a different course of action? It’s just nonsensical that it could go any other way. There is the actual record.
Colonial Africa seemed poised to become a solar farm. Shuman felt that from here on in, it was going to be like powered air flight and take over the world.
Then, an Archduke was shot dead, and the world descended into the insanity of World War I, and war and oil took over the world instead. In an act of sickeningly symbolic vandalism, the solar collector troughs of Maadi were broken up to support the British war effort. The huge German contract was now worthless. And the war then entrenched coal and oil into the industrialised economics, and the war’s increased demand for both these pernicious products had lowered their cost. The toxic treadmill which the world has been on ever since, with all its terrible self-feeding consequences, had started rolling.
Two Philadelphians, Henry George and Frank Shuman, have provided the biggest what-ifs in history. It doesn’t feel fantastical to claim that these particular what-ifs are the very ones that would have led to a perpetually prosperous and just and happy world at one with its planetary home, respecting what it is.
It is actually quite nice to ponder that the world might have turned out well. And it might have been so much worse; it was maybe not beyond the Victorian era to have invented CFCs and incinerated us all before anyone knew what was going on. We might have accidentally destroyed ourselves and never have known why. Perhaps this happens sometimes in the universe.
We’re still here, but suffering from having took the wrong steps years ago, particularly between about 1884 and 1914. If that 30 year period could have been magically different, this would have been by now a world of liberty and plenty much further advanced to the troubled one we’re imprisoned in. It is just a fantasy, but in the world of what-ifs, these two really are the big ones. The world really could have turned out very well.
One day it may be seen as ludicrous that it didn’t, that this era be seen as an era of magnified madness that we found our way out of. The world really could have turned out very well, and we’ve got to believe that it still could.