The very first decarbonisation solutions

The innovative decarbonisation solutions offered today by DecarbEurope’s partners owe a lot to the creativity, engineering skills and perseverance of inventors from the 19th and 20th centuries.

In this post we look back at the origin of some of today’s decarbonisation solutions by discovering the very first heat pump, wind turbine, solar panel, electric vehicle etc. The inventions are listed chronologically.

The first wind pump

Commonly referred to as the Father of the American Windmill, inventor Daniel Halladay invented a self-regulating wind pump in 1854. In the next few years, versions of his annular-sailed windmill could be seen throughout the US as well as in Argentina, South Africa and New Zealand.

The first rechargeable battery

This can probably be accredited to the French physician Gaston Planté, who in 1859 invented a rechargeable lead-acid battery. In 1899 Waldmar Jungner from Sweden invented the nickel-cadmium battery (NiCd), and two years later Thomas Edison produced an alternative design by replacing cadmium with iron. However, the practical applications of these new rechargeable batteries were limited by high material costs. It wasn’t until 1932 when Shlecht and Ackermann invented the sintered pole plate that the NiCd battery became popular as it could now produce much higher load currents and had improved longevity. Another breakthrough was in 1947 when Neumann succeeded in completely sealing the nickel-cadmium cell.

The first photoelectric cell

In 1873, the English electrical engineer Willoughby Smith discovered the photoconductivity of the element selenium. It led to the invention of photoelectric cells, including those used in the earliest television systems, and set the stage for PV panels for the next two centuries.

The first solar concentrator

Foreseeing the eventual exhaustion of coal mines, French professor of physics Augustin Mouchot connected a parabolic reflector to a cylindrical boiler that supplied a small steam engine. In 1878, Mouchot’s 20 square meter solar concentrator received first prize at the Paris Universal Exposition. His invention inspired Emile Zola to describe a post-coal society powered by solar energy in his futuristic novel “Travail”.

The first solar concentrator

The first electric passenger train

German inventor and industrialist Werner von Siemens presented the first electric passenger train in Berlin in 1879. The locomotive was driven by a 2.2 kW, series-wound motor, and the train, consisting of the locomotive and three cars, reached a speed of 13 km/h. During four months, the train carried 90,000 passengers on a 300-metre-long circular track. Just two years later, von Siemens opened the world’s first electric tram line in Lichterfelde near Berlin. In 1886, electric trolleys first appeared in the US.

The first electric passenger train

The first electric vehicle and outboard engine

In 1881, Gustave Trouvé took the newly developed rechargeable battery and fitted it to a tricycle, thereby inventing the world’s first electric vehicle. He then made the motor portable and removable and fixed it to a boat, thus creating the first outboard engine. He later miniaturized his electric motor to power a dental drill, a sewing machine and a razor.

The first solar heating and ventilation system

Edward Morse’s passive solar building that he constructed in 1881 consisted of a wall built on the sunny side of a building with a glass external layer and a high heat capacity internal layer separated by a layer of air. Light close to UV in the electromagnetic spectrum passed through the glass almost unhindered, was absorbed by the wall and re-radiated in the far infrared spectrum to heat the inside of the building.

The first cogeneration plant

This was Pearl Street Station, which was also the first commercial central power plant in the US. It was located in Manhattan, fired by coal, and started generating electricity on September 4, 1882, initially powering 400 lamps at 82 customers. It was built by the Edison Illuminating Company, which was headed by Thomas Edison. While the steam engines provided grid electricity, Edison made use of the thermal by-product by distributing steam to local manufacturers, and warming nearby buildings on the same Manhattan block.

The first cogeneration plant

The first solar cell

In 1883, American inventor Charles Fritts coated the semiconductor selenium with an extremely thin layer of gold. The resulting solar cell had a conversion efficiency of only about 1%, and was too expensive to manufacture, but his discovery paved the way for today’s solar cells.

The first building control system

Also in 1883, Warren Johnson, a schoolteacher from Milwaukee and soon to be founder of Johnson Controls, invented the thermostat. It was a simple device that responded to falling temperature by activating a light in the boiler room, indicating when janitors should shovel more coal into the furnace. It marked the beginning of the building controls and automation industry.

The first thermostat

The first wind turbine

The first instance of electricity generation from wind power was due to the work of Scottish electrical engineer Professor James Blyth, who in 1887 built a cloth-sailed wind turbine for electricity generation.

The first 4WD electric vehicle

In 1898, Ferdinand Porsche developed the first Porsche, the Egger-Lohner C.2, to be 100% electric. It could travel only at low speeds but had an impressive reach of 80 km. He then added two other motors on the rear wheels to create the first 4WD electric vehicle. One of the drawbacks of the car was its weight of 1800 kg, which prevented it being able to climb steep slopes.

The first electric 4WD vehicle

The first solar farm

Could this accolade be given to Manuel António Gomes, a Portuguese priest and inventor who also went under the name Padre Himalaya? His biggest achievement was the Pirelióforo, a device in which thousands of mirrors over a surface of 80 square meters concentrated solar energy up to a temperature of 3500°C. The huge installation was a star of the 1904 Universal Expo of St. Louis.

The first energy cooperative

From 1900 onwards, the production and distribution of electricity in Europe developed quickly, and it was as early as 1910 that the first energy cooperative came into existence through the company Alb-Elektrizitätswerk Geislingen-Steige eG. Generally speaking, the initiative primarily arose from private investors in the more populated cities. Later, public and cooperative player introduced energy cooperatives in the less populated, rural parts of Europe. In other words, capital was invested where it was profitable. Where this was not evident, local authorities and civic cooperatives themselves had to bring the new energy medium to citizens.

The first solar thermal power plant

Frank Shuman’s solar thermal power plant constructed in 1913 in Maadi, Egypt was able to pump 6000 gallons of water per minute from the Nile River to irrigate adjacent cotton fields. Although the discovery of cheap oil in the 1930s discouraged the promotion of solar energy, Shuman’s vision and conception were resurrected in the 1970s with a new wave of solar thermal concentrators.

The first hydrogen truck

If you think hydrogen powered vehicles are inventions of the 21st century, think again. Using a water mill, a 35hp turbine, an electrolyser, two generators, a distillation plant for purified water, two gasometers, and a compressor for squeezing hydrogen at 350 atm into a stationary tank, in 1945 Hubault & Dubled were able to produce hydrogen and power a 1929 Saurer truck. They travelled thousands of kilometers over six years without incident.

The first hydrogen truck

The first ground source heat pump

The scientific principle behind today’s heat pumps was first demonstrated by Willian Cullen back in 1748 and then refined by Lord Kelvin in 1852. It was Austrian engineer Peter von Rittinger who designed and installed the first known pilot heat pump for heating only, in 1857, in the salt works in the village of Ebensee in Upper Austria. Heat pumps for space heating remained visions of some engineers at that time, such as the Swiss turbine engineer Heinrich Zoelly who was the first to propose an electrically driven ground source heat pump for the production of low temperature heat. A worldwide milestone was the installation of the first heat pump in the Zurich City Hall by the Escher Wyss company in 1937-38; the system was planned by the engineering company Heinrich Lier of Zurich.

The first use of biofuels for vehicles

Interestingly, German inventor Rudolf Diesel designed his diesel engine to run on peanut oil. Later, Henry Ford designed the Model T car – produced from 1903 to 1926 – to run on hemp derived biofuel as fuel. It was only when huge supplies of crude oil were discovered in Texas and Pennsylvania that petroleum replaced biofuels as a cheaper and more efficient power source.

The first large-scale wind turbine

Over 50% of Denmark’s electricity consumption comes from wind power, but of course it had to start with just one wind turbine. This was in 1950 when Danish engineer Johannes Juul developed a three-bladed, 200 kW wind turbine. It ran for 10 years without requiring maintenance and was Denmark’s first large-scale wind turbine.

The first industrial PV technology

Photovoltaic technology as we know it today was born in the US in 1954 when Gordon Pearson, Calvin Fuller and Darryl Chapin developed the silicon photovoltaic (PV) cell at Bell Labs. It was the first solar cell capable of converting enough of the sun’s energy into power to run everyday electrical equipment.

PV pioneers

The first biomass for heating

Using wood for heating is as old as human beings, but modern, efficient solutions such as wood pellet stoves were only invented in the 1970s during the oil energy crisis when alternatives to fossil fuels were sought. Today, biomass for heating has little in common with stone-age open fires: closed and automated systems guarantee high energy efficiency and clean air while still providing the comfortable feeling of a nice wood flame.

Concluding remarks

What’s interesting is that many of these “technological firsts” were invented within a very short timeframe of each other in the 1870s and 1880s. The late 19th century was indeed a time of great creativity and inventiveness in which innovative engineers laid the foundations of many of the technologies we still use today.

With the effects of climate change intensifying, it’s vital that Europe is decarbonised at the scale and speed that is needed to achieve our climate goals. We certainly have most technologies ready – they’ve been developed and refined over a period of 150 years. While we roll them out throughout the European energy system, we can continue to improve their energy efficiency, lifetime and reliability, establish internet monitoring and control technologies for preventive maintenance, connect solutions with storage for helping the grid and investigate whether existing solutions can find new application areas.

1 comment

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  1. Tom

    a bit too remember the good ol’days of individual Engineering spirit – today we Need Networking and interaction, Teamwork rather then Inventors in the ivory Tower, scalable and multi-Purpose Solutions, not “one fits all”


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