Calvin Souther Fuller and the Birth Of the Solar Cell
On October 28, 1994 Calvin Souther Fuller passed away at his home in Vero Beach, Florida. He was 92. Born on May 25th, 1902, Fuller’s legacy includes 33 patents, including how to purify silicon. Some have called his inventions a pivotal step in the founding of semiconductors, the evolution of the personal computer and the development solar cell. In his 1994 New York Times obituary, AT&T spokesman Robert Ford said Fuller’s invention of the silicon solar cell…
“…helped make the space program practical, because space vehicles could get power from readily available sunlight.”
Born in Chicago, Fuller attended the University of Chicago he received a B.S. and a Ph.D.in physical chemistry. He joined Bell Labs (then called Bell Telephone) in 1930, where his work included research in organic insulating materials and investigations of the molecular nature of polymers.
In 1954, working with Bell Telephone scientists Daryl Chapin and Gerald Pearson, Fuller diffused boron into silicon to capture the sun’s power. The invention of the ‘solar battery’ resulted in a 600% improvement in previous technologies to harnessing solar power and convert it into electricity. The inventors used several small strips of silicon to capture sunlight and render it into free electrons.
Here is a story told by Calvin S. Fuller’s oldest son Robert W. Fuller as part of the speech preparation for Calvin S. Fuller’s May 2008 induction to the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame:
“In 1954, I was home from vacation from college to visit my parents. That night my father, Calvin Souther Fuller, came home with something that looked like a quarter with wires sticking out of it. This was a device that connected to a small electric windmill that stood on the table. He shined a bright flashlight on the quarter-like object, which was actually silicon solar cell, and the blades of the windmill started turning. It was so exciting to see the flashlight power the tiny windmill. While this device looked like a quarter to anyone else, it was actually the world’s first silicon solar battery – a device that later become known as the silicon solar cell.”
The solar cell was given a public demonstration at Murray Hill in 1954. The first public service trial of the Bell Solar Battery began with a telephone carrier system in 1955 in Americus, Georgia. By 1958, the US Department of Defense wanted solar cells to power vehicles and satellites in space. The first time the cells were put on board an operational space vehicle, and used, was in 1962, on AT&T’s Telstar communications satellite.
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