Posts Tagged ‘Sicily’

Ecotricity and Solar Power in the 19th Century

April 7, 2015

Pifre Steam Press

Abel Pifre’s Solar-Powered Printing Press

Yesterday I reblogged a fascinating piece from Tom Pride’s site. Tom had posted up a little video of an interview with the chief of Ecotricity, explaining why he had donated money to and was backing Labour. The CEO stated that while he had his reservations about Labour, he thought they were the best party to promote green energy. He felt that a second term of the Tories would be disastrous for this country.

He mentioned the great benefits of renewable power, It’s decentralised nature meant that a potential failure in one of the stations would certainly be as catastrophic as the failure of a nuclear power station. Furthermore, people were able to generate green energy at home. You can see this in practice today with the number of ordinary houses with solar panels on the roof.

The potential of sunlight as a source of power has been known since the ancient world, when Archimedes in the 3rd Century BC sank an invading Roman fleet off Sicily by getting the Greek soldiers to concentrate the sunlight reflected from their bronze shields on the approaching ships.

Over 2000 years later, in 1882 the French engineer, Abel Pifre, demonstrated the ability of solar power to drive modern industrial machinery in an experiment at the Tuileries Gardens in Paris. He set up a concave mirror, 3 1/2 metres in diameter. In the centre of the mirror was a boiler with a valve. This operated a small motor, running at 3/5 horsepower. This drove a Marinoni press, which printed off a copy of a newspaper, which Pifre had written himself, the Sun-Newspaper.

The device operated from one O’clock to half past five, printing off the newspapers as the rate of 500 copies an hour.

The solar press was ingenious, and demonstrated the immense potential of the technology. It doesn’t seem to have been taken up because it was uneconomical compared to coal and later the petrochemical industries. Despite this, such machines clearly have massive potential and may at last come into their own as the world tries to move away from fossil fuels because of the harm they do to the environment.

And fans of Steampunk literature can always have fun imagining what might have happened, if the Victorians not only built Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, but also had the eminent good sense to power it and their cities with solar power.