They Tried to Make Solar Energy In 1900 ... With Hundreds of Mirrors

They Tried to Make Solar Energy In 1900 ... With Hundreds of Mirrors

Energy is a difficult beast. In a perfect world, lights would stay on and homes would be heated without the need for massive, often ecologically damaging infrastructure. Even long ago when the steam engine was still considered revolutionary, some were looking to the future to find more efficient and cost-saving means of producing energy. In 1900, one man named Dr. William Calver had a bold idea. 

“What if we just pointed the sun at it?”

The St. Louis Republic

‘Look we all have mustaches. 1900’s people are legally required to hear us out."

Well, duh. How come nobody else thought of that? His invention was called the helio-motor, which he said simply meant “sun power,” and for some, this idea briefly had the potential to be a paradigm shift in energy.

The helio-motor would not be an engine or turbine or anything like that. It would be a series of mirrors. These mirrors would redirect the sun’s rays to create heat. This was inspired by the story of Ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes’ heat ray, which functioned under the same idea. Archimedes’ mirrors redirected the sun to set enemy ships ablaze. Of course, this was an ancient story, which means that the truth was probably bent ever so slightly. Or a lot. 

But Calver’s helio-motor was not an ancient legend. It was real, and he was realistic about it. A few mirrors were not enough to boil water or start a fire. His apparatus involved hundreds, sometimes even thousands of mirrors. The mirrors would be positioned so that they caught rays and directly pointed them at whatever needed the heat. Because the sun moves in the sky, the helio-motor moved as well, and it was positioned on a circular track to move with the sun.

In interviews from the time, Calver made bold claims, even going so far as to say that the helio-motor could produce temperatures hotter than the sun. Truly, no one man should have all that power. When speaking to reporters, he also mentioned feats of brilliant power demonstrated by the helio-motor like burning through a brick. Now, he didn’t demonstrate these, but he did light a stick on fire using the contraption. 

The St. Louis Republic

"Eh, close enough."

“But Dr. Calver,” you begin, smugly doubting the prowess of the greatest mind of the time. “What happens when it’s cloudy?” 

Well, worry not! He had already thought that through. You simply need to store the heat. Duh, again. Ice can be stored when it’s hot, so surely heat can be stored when it’s cold. No, seriously. That was how he defended this. As for a more practical means of saving the heat for future use, he created a separate apparatus that moved the rays of light through glass and stored them in stone. The words “more practical” are used lightly here.

Okay, all jokes aside, it should come as no surprise that the helio-motor did not change the world or even make the smallest of dents. Outside of these initial stories about Calver and his creation, it’s hard to find much of anything about the helio-motor after 1900. Even if the mirror system could direct heat through sunlight, there is no way that it could realistically do so in a capacity that could rival any other source of energy. 

Maybe we shouldn’t mock Dr. Calver too much, though. The idea of collecting the sun’s rays and converting them into usable energy is what solar power is. This comes from a far more advanced, and practical, technology, but you never know. Maybe someone influential in pioneering solar energy was inspired by the helio-motor.

Top Image: The St. Louis Republic

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