A key goal in solar energy is to make it available and affordable on a large scale. Last week, GE hit a major milestone on that path, having achieved the highest-ever reported efficiency for CdTe thin film solar panels. The research that led to the breakthrough built on decades of discovery — some of it from the space-age labs of today, and some of it from the same technology that was within reach of the millions who came to the 1939 World’s Fair and saw GE’s “Sun Motor,” a device that used photovoltaic cells to convert sunlight to electricity.
During his presentation at the Fair — which focused on “The World of Tomorrow” and drew over 44 million people during its two-year run — GE publicist and amateur magician William Gluesing said: “Many of our present-day developments are, in reality, outgrowths of dreams of the past. For centuries men have dreamed of deriving power directly from the sun. Now, after years of research, our engineers have found a way to convert the rays of the sun directly into electricity — enough to drive a small motor.”
Gluesing’s presentation was given at the GE House of Magic, which served to exhibit futuristic inventions that might one day change the world. Joining the Sun Motor were The Inductotherm — a device that used a magnetic field to share electricity — and The Levitator — a device that used magnets to levitate a subject.
The Sun Motor was a simple contraption, but it served as the foundation of a larger vision held by GE scientists — a hope expressed by Gluesing that “some day…we may be using photovoltaic cells to heat our homes and provide us with power and light.”
While GE’s newest breakthrough is a major step toward widespread use of solar power, Gluesing, sounding like GE’s present-day scientists, knew over a half century ago that true energy innovation doesn’t come easily. “It requires long and painstaking study and research by hundreds of scientists to make these new discoveries,” he said. “It takes years of development by engineers and skilled workmen to put these discoveries to work to make life easier, healthier, and happier for everyone….General Electric, as one of the leading scientific organizations of the world, recognizes its responsibility to promote progress…to make this world a better place in which to live, not only for this, but for future generations.”
Quotations excerpted from “GE’s House of Magic Booklet” (published in 1943) and courtesy of the Schenectady Museum. Unfortunately not available online.
A diagram of the Sun Motor from the House of Magic Booklet. Image courtesy of the Schenectady Museum.
William Gluesing demonstrating the Sun Motor at GE’s House of Magic at the 1939 World’s Fair. Photo courtesy of the Schenectady Museum.
* See a video in which GE’s lead solar scientist explains the new thin film breakthrough
* Read more solar stories on GE Reports
* Read more history stories on GE Reports
It wasn’t just the 1939 World’s Fair that looked to tomorrow. Famed sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov used the astounding GE exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair as a launching point for a terrific review of the Fair and essay. It looks into the far away future — the year 2014 — and imagines what might be in store based upon what he was seeing at the GE exhibit. See if he got it right (well, there’s still three years to go) by clicking here to read it in The New York Times. It’s part of our story on GE Reports, “Six Degrees of GE: Our Random Links to Luminaries.”