Had We Paid Attention to Frank Shuman….

“One thing I feel sure of is that the human race must finally utilize direct sun power or revert to barbarianism” – Frank Shuman (1862-1918)

Frank Shuman was an American visionary – part engineer, part inventor – a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 1897, Shuman demonstrated a “solar engine” constructed at his home. By reflecting sunlight onto cubes filled with ether, a substance with a lower boiling point than water, pipes inside the cubes created steam which powered a toy engine continuously for two years.

In 1908 he formed the Sun Power Company with the intention of building large power plants. By now his improved system of reflecting solar energy with mirrors meant water could be used instead of ether. He invented a low pressure steam turbine that processed energy 4 times faster than any turbine of the day. Patented in 1912 and featured in Scientific American magazine several times during 1911 -12, Shuman appeared to have captured imagination.

Between 1912-1913, Shuman built the worlds first solar energy plant in Meadi, Egypt. Solar powered engines pumped 6000 gallons of water per minute from the Nile river into a now fertile cotton field. Using a system of troughs, mirrored heat collectors aligned to follow the sun’s path, he concentrated solar energy into boilers capable of realizing his dream to transform the Sahara into a jewel. For several years, nary a ripple interrupted Shuman’s remarkable invention.

Financial backing from the British and German governments fanned Shuman’s plan to build a series of power plants along the Nile. Intent on challenging coal as an energy source, Shuman declared it would take only 20,250 square miles of the Sahara to provide enough energy for the entire world. The first world war squelched his dream – funding became the joke that saw his power plant demolished by the British government for scrap metal needed for munitions. Shuman dies in 1918.

Pondering Frank Shuman has me struggling with emotions. My gut reaction is sadness, followed by admiration, respect and clarity that only comes from hindsight. Shuman didn’t stand a chance against “big coal” and soon to be “big oil”. I get that yet can’t help wondering what might have been if we had paid attention to Frank Shuman.


Image – renewablebook.com


19 thoughts on “Had We Paid Attention to Frank Shuman….

    • Do it – don’t stop there 🙂 Become advocates for all things solar.If enough people write letters, sign petitions, pester the government blah, blah, blah – who knows what might happen. This topic gets me a little “ranty” -imagine what might happen if enough voters made a ruckus. You and I are old enough to remember the power of protest.

      All I have to do is figure out a way to light fires under the asses of ” tweet” obsessed nincompoops 🙂

      • Ah, the power of protest….

        though to be honest — at this point in life and with the current popular public rants the outcome of protest seem much more catastrophic than they did earlier in life.

        We are trying to make a deal on solar now — depending on how that goes we may be solarized by autumn — or might end up waiting some significant time — have to see how the negotiations go. 🙂

      • I’ll write about it when it happens. It’s something I have wanted to do, but with the uncertainty about the old RV we held off. now might be a good time to bite the bullet.

    • Sorry for the disappearance the last few days – crazy work schedule, caught sleep when I could:) As for Frank Shuman and solar power – holy crap! I was blown away when I found out solar power plants were fully operational before the first world war. If anyone remains who doubts “big oil” calls the shots – ponder Shuman, then imagine our planet if reckless disregard hadn’t trumped common sense. As early as the mid 1800s concern over CO2 emissions languished in a collective perception of “fool’s parade”.

      The optimist in me still believes we can stop the madness – unfortunately it’s going to take the kind of backbone poised to fade into oblivion. Soon no one alive will remember the civil rights movement, anti-war protests of the Vietnam era (let alone the confidence to believe everyday people can get off their asses and make a difference.

      Solar power should be a demand, not a whim reserved for “hippies” or bat shit environmentalists. It makes me crazy 🙂

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