Solar power through the ages; The Golden Thread: 2500 Years of Solar Architecture and Technology, by Ken Butti and John Perlin. Palo Alto: Cheshire Books (distributed by Van Nostrand Reinhold). $15.95 (paperback).
No, there is nothing new about solar energy. It has been woven into the warp and woof of Western civilization a number of times, only to be raveled out again.
Yet, each time solar energy was rediscovered, it was strengthened and improved by the growing scientific knowledge of its discoverers and their ability to manipulate the basic materials at hand.
Now many people are convinced that a lasting solar age is about to dawn and that with our unprecedented scientific and technological base, we can finally harness the golden rays of the sun as economically as we can recover and use fossil fuels.
Whether or not this is the case, the history of mankind's efforts to use the sun's power is a fascinating story, one told in a lively yet scholarly manner here.
In ancient Greece sunlight was considered healthful, so entire cities were designed with spacious southern exposures. In Rome, artisans discovered the beneficial qualities of glass, and the sun's warmth was utilized at the famous and opulent Roman baths.
Then there were the speculations of Leonardo da Vinci and Sir Roger Bacon concerning the military potential of "burning mirrors," solar collectors that would focus the sun's rays for a weapon of destruction; the medievel scientists were never able to build a device big enough and strong enough to use in warfare , however.
The first solar motors were developed in France in the early 1800s. French scientists took the lead because their country had little coal, a key ingredient in the Industrial Revolution that was sweeping England. The scientists proved that a significant amount of power could be generated using only concentrated sunlight, but eventually improved coal-mining techniques and a more efficient rail system made coal more attractive and brought their work to an end.
These are just a few of the solar tales to be found in "The Golden Thread," each well paired with illustrations from the period in question.
And fascinating as they are, the triumphs and defeats of solar pioneers from the golden age of Greece up to the present help us appreciate what a solar future may yet hold.