My inspiration was this: Could solar power be utilized and substitute coal in the 19th century?

My world is this: Rail Transportation with Races Described Below - Specifically, Seating

My people are 2,000 years into the future, and 1,900 years from a nuclear war that made humans leave. Humans are back on the scene, but have only been around for 200 years.

Story Time!

Roughly 60 years before the setting, an adventuring party consisting of a female Pharera Cleric of Esuna (Goddess of Love/Death), a male Drava Diviner, a male Human Rogue, and a female Gern Barbarian discovered blueprints for solar panels in the Andes (Specifically, in the ruins of Lima) and brought it to their Drava employers, who were only expecting undead and demons in the ruins. Drava being Drava, they enlisted the help of humans to develop the technology. Once they got the tech down pat, they began using the tech to make prototype of a solar panel-powered steam engines.

Once this was done, a wealthy Avandra man, who ran a textile company, took one look at the article in his newspaper, saw dollar signs scribbled all over it (Metaphorically), and asked the sage responsible for inventing the solar panel if he could have more made to power a large cotton spinning mill, using the solar power as fuel for machines. The sage didn't really have much to show for the solar power being useful, but she did have a few dozen people making them, so she accepted. A few years later (50 years to the setting), the Avandra had several textile factories and was crushing his business competitors by pioneering mass production.

By this time, a Na'vi business advisor of the Avandra, Neytiri, saw that the little workshop he depended on for solar panels was just too slow for future expansion. The Avandra, upon hearing this, uttered the most famous words of the earliest industrial revolution - "Neytiri, solar panels don't just sprout off trees! If you want more of them, make 'em yourself!"

This gave Neytiri the defining idea that led the world into the upward, inescapable spiral to the industrial revolution part 2 - Use the Avandra's ideas for mass producing textiles and put it into making the solar panels. A few years later (46 years to setting), she had a big factory of her own, supplying several other people with big ideas with solar panels. She also hired the sage responsible for inventing the solar panels for Research and Development. Neytiri was so successful that the company she founded with only the sage and a few thousand dollars, Neytiri Solar Panels, still holds a near monopoly on the solar panel industry and a Thanalan Civilian Medal of Honor (The highest medal a Thanalan civilian can earn) from Neytiri hung in the CEO office room in the office building the business runs from, along with the honor of almost single-handedly starting the Industrial Revolution for a second time.

However, I don't know if your average 19th Century society, even one as rich as America IRL, could create a solar panel, even one with a blueprint for the panels. If a 19th Century society COULD form solar panels, please tell me how.

Here are the materials for a Solar Panel:

  1. Silicon
  2. Lithium

My basic question is: Have these 3 materials been around since at least 1750?

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    $\begingroup$ 19th century Earth couldn't do photovoltaics, even if they were handed everything packaged up and tied with a bow. Solar power takes other forms though, and in some places it might be possible for the to run a steam engine from solar-heated water (steam engines being a solid 19th-century-level tech). The parabolics to drive even the smallest practice steam engine though would be quite huge, and non-portable. And I don't know that there's much use in lighting up the daytime. $\endgroup$ – John O Dec 4 '20 at 19:41
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    $\begingroup$ (1) 19th century Earth can easily do solar power, by using the solar light to grow sugar cane or rapeseed and burning the sugar or rapeseed oil. (2) A solar panel powered steam engine is nonsensical. If they have solar panels, they have electric energy; they should use directly to drive electric motors (efficiency > 80%) instead of using it to boil water to make steam to drive steam engines (efficiency < 10%). $\endgroup$ – AlexP Dec 4 '20 at 19:52
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP, actually, industrial-scale solar isn't necessarily photovoltaic, and some of those applications certainly seem plausible for the OP's world, even if they don't exactly match the stated question. Read more here. (Also noted in PcMan's answer.) $\endgroup$ – Matthew Dec 5 '20 at 4:42

Solar photovoltaic cells such as you propose, are completely impossible with 19th century infrastructure, even if they have detailed blueprints. You absolutely need ultrapure silicon, and vacuum deposition of other ultrapure chemicals, and sub-sub microscopic connections, and... You might be able to cobble together a mechanism that demonstrates the effect, but making something that actually produces any useful power would be several steps past your best ability. Even early 20th century tech is not up to it. You need 1950's tech to make anything like that, and really 1970's tech to make it practical.

But solar thermal is very achievable. Solar collectors heating a working material, driving a steam turbine, are quite achievable with 19th century tech, given a suitable blueprint & manufacturing specs. You might even be able to swing it with 15th century tech, if you are willing to accept a very inefficient system. (bad optics, low pressure boilers, inadequate metallurgy for generator parts)

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    $\begingroup$ You don't even need steam. You could use a lower boiling point fluid in your engine, as is often done with geothermal power plants: ormat.com/en/renewables/geothermal/view/?ContentID=155 $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Dec 5 '20 at 5:01
  • $\begingroup$ Solar thermal also makes the steam engines mentioned in the question a sensible approach. You wouldn't use photovoltaic panels to power steam engines. However, what would keep things solar powered? Any heat source would do, and combusting material has numerous advantages, like working in the dark and not needing big awkward reflector panels that have to be kept pointed at the sun. $\endgroup$ – Christopher James Huff Dec 5 '20 at 21:11

Silicon was first isolated in 1808, before that Lavoisier

suspected that silica might be an oxide of a fundamental chemical element, but the chemical affinity of silicon for oxygen is high enough that he had no means to reduce the oxide and isolate the element.

The above is sufficient to say that the answer to your question is no.

Lithium instead

It was not isolated until 1821, when William Thomas Brande obtained it by electrolysis of lithium oxide,

Wrapping up, forget about solar cells in the time you are proposing.


I'm going to answer the broader question: Could the 19th Century build modern solar panels?


  1. The best scientists of the 19th century would be unable to understand the blueprints of today. I know this because as an Electrical Engineer, I'm familiar with schematic symbols that simply didn't exist 120+ years ago. Said symbols would have no meaning and would require multiple textbooks to explain to the degree that the components could be fabricated (and then you'd need a mountain of textbooks to build the fabrication facility. See #3).

  2. Technology is a pyramid. You're taking an idea from the top of the pyramid, which depends on all other things below it, and asking if that could be dealt with somewhere in the middle of the pyramid. You need 21st century manufacturing, tooling, materials science, metallurgy, computers (including at least CRT monitors), software, printers, power generation, everything down to precision screwdrivers that didn't exist back then. You'd need transportation, refrigeration, foundry services... a proverbial thousand-and-one things and each and every one of them are needed just to produce a modern solar panel. Factories would need to be built to build the precision tools needed for the next factory to build more precise tools for the next factory until you can finally build the silicon substrate.

  3. Which means you're not delivering blue prints. You're delivering a university-sized library of blueprints, text books, scientific papers, etc., to help educate the 19th century scientists so they even knew what they were looking at when they examined the blueprints.

We get questions of this type several times a year ("Can X tech be had at point Y in the past?"). The higher the tech and the further back you go, the more absolutely certain the answer is "no." It took us this long to invent the tech. It's really, really, really, really hard to speed that process up in any way. And an important reason is the factory level 1 to build factory level 2 to build factory level 3 dependencies. By the time you've built all those factories and finally produced an equivalent solar cell, you're only 10-20 years shy of when it happened in the first place.

Think about it... there weren't even as many people back then — and you need to train millions in vocations that didn't exist back then to build all those factories, tools, etc.

So... no.

One last thing: When a previous OP asked if it was possible to create a chart of technology dependencies, even that question was deemed so large that it violated SE's book rule. Most people who think questions like this can be realistically answered don't actually understand the historical tech dependencies to make a pencil. I apologize for the brutal answer — but if you want to write "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," I recommend you just do it and not try to justify how it could be done.


You do not even need a steam engine/turbine, see Solar updraft tower and Energy tower (downdraft).


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