A Belated Earth Day Blog, 2019
Monster Solar Motor, 1901
On April 16, 1901, subscribers to the Waterbury Democrat read about a “monster solar motor” installed on an ostrich farm in Pasadena, California. The beast was reported capable of lifting 1, 400 gallons of water a minute, an amount said to be sufficient to irrigate 500 acres of trees. “By means of a huge construction of mirrors, resembling an inverted umbrella, on a large scale, the heat of the sun’s rays is concentrated on a long cylindrical boiler,” furnishing enough steam to run a ten horse-power motor. Based on the work undertaken decades earlier by scientists and engineers working to solve problems of energy and water scarcity in the hot, sunny regions of the British Empire, this little prototype by a British inventor named Aubrey Eneas was a public relations success. The farm was a tourist attraction as it sat among a number of health resorts popular with well-off folks from the East, who could view the lush gardens made possible by solar-fueled irrigation. Articles extolling the solar motor’s virtues by William E. Smythe, a vocal advocate for the reclamation of the desert southwest, were featured in many newspapers of the period, including some in Connecticut.
The Pasadena prototype consisted of a mirror-lined dish mounted on a steel frame. According reports, it followed the sun throughout the day by means of a mechanically-time counterweight and required little manual labor to keep it in operation. For a time, it was viewed as the perfect solution for the many entrepreneurs drawn to California, promising industry and agriculture free from the costs and burden of coal-fired pumps and also from dependence upon outside centralized sources. According to Christopher E. Johnson, author of “Turn on the Sunshine: A History of the Solar Future” (2015), the momentum around solar-powered irrigation was cut short by the passage of the Federal Reclamation Act of 1902, which put the federal government in the land reclamation and irrigation business and is said to have made private investment in solar even more risky than before.
Johnson reminds us that the dream of a solar, tide, and wind-powered utopia was key to the dreams of at least one utopian in the Americas, the German immigrant John Adolphus Etzler. He arrived in the U.S. in 1811 with the goal of creating a renewable energy “paradise within the reach of all men” and reportedly died at sea while seeking funding for such a colony in Venezuela. Nearly one hundred years later, the dream reached the Democrat’s readership in Waterbury. It is likely that they would hardly believe it would still remain unfulfilled in 2019.
To find more stories about early solar energy initiatives, use the search term “solar motor” in Chronicling America, the free database with more than 15 million pages of historic newspapers.
For Further Research
Christopher E. Johnson, “Turn on the Sunshine”: A History of the Solar Future,” diss., University of Washington, 2015. Accessed on April 25, 2019 at https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/handle/1773/33187.
J. A. Etzler, The Paradise within the Reach of All Men, without Labour, by Powers of Nature and Machinery (London: John Brooks, 1836). Accessed on April 25, 2019 at https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/handle/1773/33187.
W. E. Smyth, “The Sun Harnessed at Last,” The San Francisco call. (San Francisco [Calif.]), 24 March 1901. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85066387/1901-03-24/ed-1/seq-6/>