Altermatt Lecture:   The PV Principle


1.4:  The first solar cells*

Soon after, in 1883, the first solar cell panel was made by the New Yorker inventor Charles Fritts [7]. He coated selenium with an extremely thin layer of gold, so it was transparent to light, and obtained an energy conversion efficiency between 1 and 2%.

Because the photovoltaic effect could not be understood, Fritts contacted a famous expert, Werner von Siemens, who reproduced the effect and confirmed it [8].

These pioneers and their contemporaries had no deeper understanding of this effect and were—accordingly—unable to develop solar cells further. In contrast, the effect of electromagnetic induction was discovered in 1831 by Michael Faraday and was well understood. This lead to the rapid development of electric generators run on coal-fired steam or water force—and became the means to produce electric power on a large scale.


Excerpt from Fritts 1885

Figure 1: Excerpt from Charles Fritts' publication [7]. At his time, the rectifying action of the junction could not be explained.

Excerpt from Fritts 1885

Figure 2: Another excerpt from Charles Fritts' publication [7] reporting on stability problems...

Excerpt from Fritts 1885

Figure 3: ... and on his assembly of cells into a module.

Excerpt from Siemens 1885

Figure 4: Werner von Siemens' conclusion in his response article to Charles Fritts' publication [8].


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