Altermatt Lecture:   The PV Principle


1.3:  Some history of the photovoltaic effect*

The photovoltaic effect was discovered by a 19-year old in 1839: Edmund Becquerel experimented in his father's laboratory in Paris with two silver-coated platinum electrodes immersed in a dilute acid to form a sort of battery. He kept one electrode shaded and put the other one in sunlight and observed that these two electrodes altered their electric power [4], [5]. Nowadays, a system of this sort is called an electrochemical cell.

In 1876, the photovoltaic effect was reported for the first time in a solid: selenium. It was known for some time that selenium changes its conductivity under illumination. However, it was William G. Adams (who succeeded the famous Maxwell as professor in London) and his student Richard E. Day who showed for the first time [6] that electric power is directly produced under illumination.

Selenium bars

Figure 1: The original selenium bars used by Adams and Day in the Institution of Engeneering and Technology, London. Photo courtesy of John Perlin.

Abstract from Becquerel 1839

Figure 2: The abstract in Becquerel's original publication [4].

Excerpt from Adams and Day 1877

Figure 3: An excert from Adams and Day's publication [6].


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