The person in the story falls through a plot hole into the early 1800 years. Like, steam engines are still new and ineffective, but industrialization is nothing foreign anymore. Light bulb, car & bicycle are still 80 years in the future, electrical telegraph is 30 years to go. History-wise, the "0th world war" (the seven year's war), is already history, same for the US independence war. French revolution is done, Napoleonic wars are soon to come and to be avoided as much as possible.

For some reason, the person gets a pre-warning, so they prepare. They travel to the best location where google says that there is the minimum amount of war, famine and disease, but the amount of freedom and available work force is sufficient to found an enterprise. Be it some African or american colony or some hinterlands of Portugal, Spain, Colombia... wherever nothing happens, people search for work and neither bureaucracy nor crime actively prevent it.

While they prepare, they also decide that it would be a great way to become rich if the humanity could shortcut the entire coal and oil burn down phase at the same time; so they decide to found an enterprise on electric applications.

He goes to the net and downloads a very good 2020-ish recipe for batteries, for making solar cells and a good dc motor. Prints everything on paper, adds a physics book to the pile and goes back.

Producing a solar powered motor for workshops is the most in-the-face obvious advantageous thing for small scale enterprises like smiths, mills and the like. However, despite the obvious advantage, I am not sure that I am on the right track here.

A semiconductor, any semiconductor, produces electricity as soon as light reaches it's surface. Silicium is cheap today and solar cells are the cheapest energy source worldwide because this material is used in many industries today - but there may be a problem if we have to kickstart the production out of the nothing. On the other hand, if you start it from ground up, it doesn't need to be perfect, it is sufficient if it works at all.

Same for the batteries. The biggest problem had been (and still is) the search for a good recipe. The production is as low tech as anybody can imagine - as long as you can get your hands on the material. Lithium is widely available; cheapest source is Chile of course because there you can find it in very clean form, directly at the surface. But if need arises and money is available, one could get it in nearly every place in the world. The recipe would be some variant that maybe can't store so much like the today's high-end batteries, but instead is very resistant/tolerant to in-current and out-current, overcharge and deep discharge, so that one doesn't need a sophisticated management system.

What would my person need additionally if I take the solar route? What would stop them from building their enterprise? Is that at all a realistic scenario, taking some knowledge and kickstart the solar age at 1800 or would I need a bucket full of other things I didn't think of?

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    $\begingroup$ I really like your plot :) $\endgroup$
    – Humphrey
    Commented Sep 12, 2021 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ "The production is as low tech as anybody can imagine as long as you can get your hands on the material": That is sort-of true for carbon zinc primary cells and for lead acid or nickel iron secondary cells. It is totally, completely false for lithium ion or nickel metal hydride secondary cells. No, they cannot make lithium ion batteries in the early 1800s. And anyway the lead-acid battery was invented in 1859, almost on time for your scenario; and the photovoltaic effect was discovered in 1839. There must be a reason why they didn't replace steam engines, wouldn't you think so? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Sep 12, 2021 at 18:30
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    $\begingroup$ You might consider that this is two questions: production of batteries, and production of solar cells. The latter is quite different to, and somewhat more awkward than, the former. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 12, 2021 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ The initial power source of the industrial revolution wasn't coal/steam. It was wind and water. The problem was either it was inconstant (wind - which would also affect solar), or severely limited geographically (water). Coal solved both of those problems, and was more energy dense as well. Hydroelectricity would at least allow you to move factories away from waterways relatively easily/cheaply, but you're not going to stop the use of coal/oil for one big case for a long time - mobile use of power (cars/ships/trains - at least at long distances). $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 3:01
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    $\begingroup$ How about the boiling-water kind of solar? Mirrors and pipes and black paint should be easier to make than semiconductors. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 9:50

12 Answers 12


A bit of a frame challenge here.

Solar electricity generation isn't going to be so easy to do without a whole lot of other tech which likely only comes along long after electricity is already a thing & by then it's too late & the vested interests in the power generation methods that already exist will block your entry into the market.

It's not enough that you know how to do it, you'll need a whole industrial infrastructure behind you before you can start developing it & by the time you've put all that in place you'll already have the 'wrong' sort of power generation systems established & already being copied by your competitors.


Wind not solar.

There's a lot of inertia in these things, if you can get in with small household generators & make them both ubiquitous & cheap enough b4 coal fired power stations really establish themselves you've got a chance at least that they & national grids never happen, something like Halcium's home PowerPod might do it.

Imagine every household already has one of those & battery storage when coal fired power was first starting,

It would mean fewer people would want to pay for their power to be piped in as they already have it than was the case in the real past, that reduced demand 'might' just be enough to make building the coal fired (& later oil fired) power stations & national power grids for electricity distribution an uneconomical prospect.

You're going to have to create the demand for them in the first place though, after all, if they don't have appliances to use the power why would anyone buy them?

So you're going to have to develop & market things like home lighting, home refrigeration, electric irons, washing machines & hoovers right alongside it.

As pointed out in comments home heating is also a big issue, so home heating is also among those appliances you should develop, maybe immersion heaters supported by home insulation & black pipe solar water heating, we probably need a real estate division for the multinational conglomerate we'll be building so we can get into house design & promote bio-home design philosophies earlier on.

That was stage one.

Now do hydro.

From there you expand into hydro electric & start building dams to supply locale industrial needs.

You've probably got a race on your hands against coal & you'll have to sink a lot of profits from the previous stage into it, but if you can get your methods fully established before coal power becomes too big you might be able to strangle it at birth & this will be the alternative (to coal) base for your industrial infrastructure that you need to get started on solar.

Again you will have to create your own market by developing things to use your power, various industrial machinery, anything that needs more power than a household wind turbine produces, you'll probably need to partner with locale industrialists looking to build new factories near your build sites, invent electric trams & sell trams & the power to run them to locale municipalities.

You've brought in electric trams & you've now got the power for industrial production.

So you can now build on that tech & introduce them to cheap mass produced electric cars.

But you'd better make them hybrids that use alcohol as well because your batteries aren't good enough for long journeys yet & the fuel & power supply infrastructure to keep them running on electric (or anything else) just doesn't exist, so design them to charge overnight off those home turbines you sold everyone earlier & sell a line of cheap stills to go with them.

Get in before Ford & try to flood the market before he can get his petrol burners out there,

Who's going to 'buy' fuel when they already have their own home still providing 'free' fuel?

With a little luck you'll kill prohibition dead as well, how do you enforce it in 1920 when everyone already has a still & needs it to run their car? they'd never even try.

You can now start on solar if you want to.

You're probably going to want to run interference on undesired developments as well.

You'll know where the fossil fuel deposits are, buy the land they're on so others can't dig them up, you'll know who invented fossil fuel technologies, hire them so you can redirect their efforts away from fossil fuels, & buy any fossil fuel tech patents so you can stop others using that tech.

I think what I'm saying is solar probably won't suffice on it's own & even if it would there's a lot of things you should probably do first before you do solar, if stopping fossil fuels is your actual goal.

You'll have to build your technology infrastructure step by step, avoid introducing the technologies you don't want while you do & suppress their development by others.

But to be perfectly honest, I actually forgot what I was saying somewhere up there in all that lot :)

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    $\begingroup$ I think the big stumbling block though is heating. For many people in the 1800s, until electric lights came in and established an electrical grid, there was no need for people to have electric appliances. Coal, and fire in general provided heat for warmth in the winter, cooking, ironing, etc. You'd have to have a really good electric heating system alongside the home windmills. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 12, 2021 at 23:10
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    $\begingroup$ This is a good point. Do wind. It's still pretty solarpunk, which is (probably?) what OP required $\endgroup$
    – Ligament
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 2:20
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    $\begingroup$ The other big stumbling block is Ford and GM which at some point bought up large swaths of train tracks and destroyed it. Also vested oil interests destroying you (age of robber barons). See en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Motors_streetcar_conspiracy and en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Who_Killed_the_Electric_Car%3F for examples. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 4:16
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    $\begingroup$ I really like how you propose to hire the otherwise inventors, instead of outright assassinate them $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ Heating might be the catalyst instead of the stumbling block if we talk black tube solar water heating. :-) Ford and GM would invent their shenanigans 80 years later so enough time to be faster yet. :-) $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 19:45


Solar is good in 2021 because it is sustainable and clean, and our world is dirty and fossil fuels are more scarce. But it is the equivalent of cutting your lawn by hand with a blade as opposed to a lawn mower. If you cant use a lawn mower because it is loud or you don't have gas that is fine. It beats using a scissors. If you have one and it runs, lawn mowers are fast and work great!

The energy density produced by burning stuff is awesome and for a long time (and still) stuff to burn is cheap. If you don't care about pollution and you have plenty of cheap stuff to burn that energy density will give you a huge edge over anyone using other kinds of energy, which is why it is so hard to wean civilization off of fossil fuels.

I am left wondering what your character is actually going to do with the solar power. Considering electricity generally, solar or otherwise, what applications in this period are best achieved with electricity at all?

That is going to be what makes your story tick. I am trying to think of an application for abundant electrical power in 1820 that will outcompete coal and steam. Your character will need that application too. Fertilizer production maybe?

  • $\begingroup$ Thought about a motor - placing a mill or a motor-hammer for a Smith anywhere you like is an advantage, compared to be fixed to certain positions of wind or water power. $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Commented Sep 12, 2021 at 18:53
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    $\begingroup$ True as re wind or water. I think you are still going to have to compete with coal and steam because people are working on the locomotive and that will be hard to do with solar. $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Commented Sep 12, 2021 at 19:09
  • $\begingroup$ Motion is the most expensive, energy-wise. Should be the last application indeed $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Commented Sep 12, 2021 at 19:21
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    $\begingroup$ the ability to cool things used to be highly cumbersome and appreciated. that could be the application $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 12, 2021 at 19:43
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    $\begingroup$ "There's a lot of inertia in these things" "something like // PowerPod might do it" Imagine if every household had one of those & battery storage when coal fired power stations were first developed, fewer people will want to pay for it to be piped in when they already have it than was the case in the real past, that reduced demand might be enough to make building power stations & power distribution grids uneconomical. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    Commented Sep 12, 2021 at 22:28

Photovoltaics are way too hard. Solar thermal, however, is doable. It's also comprehensible to the people of the era. They already understand thermodynamics enough to make a steam engine, and the idea of using the sun's heat instead of a fire is simple to get across.

What novel part you could bring from their perspective would be the use of a working fluid to concentrate the heat for use with the steam engine and store it for generation when the sun is lacking, along with a clockwork mechanism to make the mirrored parabolic trough or dish track the sun.

The economic argument you can make to them is simple: sunshine is free, coal is not. Once built, it costs nothing to run, just maintenance.

And all of this is before you introduce electricity! All those mechanical devices that ran off steam engines via mechanical shafts can do the same with your solar-thermal system. You're just making the steam from the sun. You can build factories in sunny places with neighbouring solar farms running machinery off the sun's heat.

Geothermal power would be similar, so long as you build in the right location. Wind and water are more for small-scale stuff prior to electricity (grinding flour being a common historical example).

Electricity opens up lots more options, but it's not strictly necessary.

  • $\begingroup$ Would bringing some metallurgy skills (not sure which ones..) back help as well? I heard that a big problem for early steam engines was the boiler exploding under pressure (so whether that is needing better materials or better manufacturing skills) might also be useful to bring back for solar-thermal. $\endgroup$
    – Rob
    Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 12:06
  • $\begingroup$ @Rob Sure. Better metallurgy would benefit a myriad of technologies. The same steels that help make better boilers that can withstand higher pressures might potentially be useful for introducing turbines as an alternative to pistons for additional steam engine designs, as the strength for resisting being pulled apart by internal pressure might also translate into resisting centrifugal forces in a fast-spinning turbine, resulting in blades less likely to break. $\endgroup$
    – Rohan
    Commented Sep 17, 2021 at 13:06

The major problem in the way of this would be the acquiring of materials and the precision of the manufacturing. My guess is that your character could start working on solar, but photovoltaic solar technology didn't really become usable until the space age. There is of course non-photovoltaic solar - stuff like doing it with mirrors. It would of course be inefficient however.

While solar would prove difficult, wind and hydro power are renewable energy sources that we've been using for thousands of years in some form or another. Find a way to build cheap windmills or dams (or get world governments on your side) and you can show that it is a "superior" form of power. Geothermal would also be an option.

The problem is, coal was cheaper than other forms of energy in those times, especially in Britain. If you're starting this enterprise from the very early 1800s, you can perhaps reduce reliance on coal, but there's also the problem of that there isn't a customer base for it.

Since you're starting at this point rather than the mid 1800s, you still have much of the world population, even in western countries, more agrarian, and they have no need for electric lighting, stoves, telephones, etc.

I know these are scattered thoughts, but I think that in some sense this is doable. A thing to keep in mind - make sure that your character has the capability to do these things. It is not enough to print out a design of a steam locomotive and take it to someone in say 1750. You'd need a whole BOOK of information on the process, and made so someone in that time could understand it. Even then you're bound to forget things like adding insulation on the locomotive's boiler.

What makes this difficult is the tandem progress of science and technology, all stacking upon each other in ways you wouldn't have expected. In some ways that can be frustrating, but in other ways it can be fun as it introduces unexpected results and conflict.

I'm sure that if you got to a certain point of success in exporting technology to the past many in power would take notice. Some would cry afoul. You might even think something that is an objective good would be praised, when a workforce might be put out of business with it, or they are suspicious of where you acquired this tech but don't have an acute understanding of how it works.

I'd recommend taking a look at the alternate history novel 1632 - basically an American town is transported to 1632 Germany in the middle of the 30 years war, and they begin rebuilding society. It leads to many interesting side effects.

Because this idea has been done going back to Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court (your idea but going back to the middle ages) you might want to have something that stands out from the others. That however is only my personal suggestion and thought, not necessarily correct or important.

Wherever you decide to place your story will also have a big bearing on how this scenario plays out. In much of the world of the 1800s these industrial technologies were impossible to make. In areas of Asia they would cast out foreign ideas. Greater research in your setting of choice will help.

I hope that I was of some aid. I am however an armchair historian of the 1800s and of industrial technology, if you want more accurate information hone in on the specific setting, as I said, and on what technologies you want to insert into that time. Research the people's response to those technologies in that same place when they arose later, etc.

All of this may seem like side info, but when you're looking at the interaction of history and technology how people and machines interact will have huge bearings on whether your character is successful or not.

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    $\begingroup$ Great answer, thanks. I was aiming for photovoltaic power because you can make it as micro-sized as a single household. Big industrials wouldn't feel they're disrupted until it is too late... well, but there should be some fight, too. $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 5:51
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    $\begingroup$ @Anderas glad I could help! There are many ways that you could take this concept, and I hope that you have success with it. I'll point again to the novel 1632 as possible inspiration, though I'll give a disclaimer on some graphic content in it. The reason why I find it such a good inspiration on alternate history is that it present the people of the past as INTELLIGENT. They don't think that this is magic or something, they recognize these Americans come to the 1600s as using highly advanced machines. You might look to it to decide how characters in your own work would respond. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 6:08
  • $\begingroup$ Sure people have always been intelligent... in the frame in which they were allowed to develop. Problem is, I don't know how much of our civilization we need for solar cells. For Microcontrollers, for example, we would need to import a billion people to make them work, otherwise the supply chain is too small. Solar, small scale wind or similar should be easier by far. $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 6:48
  • $\begingroup$ Oh I'm afraid you misunderstood my comment @Anderas - I meant they were intelligent in that they could understand the technology - ie, they wouldn't default to it being magic. This however changes depending on the person. Some people today can't fathom how something works and thus claim it to be fake. I'd say that especially in the 1800s where there was some understanding of electricity and chemistry you could help them understand how PV solar works. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 17:00
  • $\begingroup$ "they have no need for electric lighting": Au contraire. The invention of the light bulb was the killer application for electricity at the end of the 19th century. People used to burn oil or gas or light candles in order to illuminate buildings and streets. Electric light had less side effects. But it took quite some time from the invention of the first electric light in 1802 until Edison made it mass-marketable 75 years later. Maybe you could hop onto that 1800s trend in your story? $\endgroup$
    – YetiCGN
    Commented Sep 14, 2021 at 12:42

On the other hand, if you start it from ground up, it doesn't need to be perfect, it is sufficient if it works at all.

There's a problem here: it has to be energy positive over a sufficient time period. The manufacturing process takes energy. The ratio of energy produced over lifetime to energy consumed in manufacture is "EROI", and for modern cells is somewhere in the region of 10 but increasing.

If your homebrew system is not energy-positive enough then it cannot bootstrap its way up.

Silicion is cheap today and solar cells are the cheapest energy source worldwide because this material is used in many industries today - but there may be a problem if we have to kickstart the production out of the nothing.

Silicon wafers are used in basically one industry, the semiconductor industry, and are cheap because of the incredibly high production volume and also the gradual refinement of techniques. There are two things which determine the cost of wafers:

  • how efficiently you manage the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Czochralski_method (energy intensive, requires careful process control at 1500C)

  • how efficiently you saw the boule into wafers. They need to be as thin as possible, with as little material removed ("kerf") as possible. This is done with diamond wire saws.

While the description makes it sound straightforward, the industrial process control isn't, and it would require significant experience to improve the process to the point where you aren't consuming more energy to make the cells than you could get out of a 20-year life.

Same for the batteries. The biggest problem had been (and still is) the search for a good recipe. The production is as low tech as anybody can imagine - as long as you can get your hands on the material.

I think this is a misconception; the manufacturing process is actually a pretty important part of the "recipe" for modern cells. For the time traveller though the Edison-era NiFe (nickel-iron) battery may be suitable.

  • $\begingroup$ EROEI sweet to see someone thinks about such things) $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 10:19

'traditional' solar isn't that great for bootstrapping since it needs silicon and energy storage. In short, you're thinking like you have had a hundred years of tech and you don't

If I was going to bootstrap a solar based energy system - or more precisely a renewable energy system I'd look at a few technologies.

Rather than going 'straight' into battery powered storage, I'd look at a few fairly 'simple' ways to store power - reusing energy from water pumped up into storage tanks and the good old flywheel. There's even been buses powered by flywheels.

As for fundamental energy sources - water and windmills are technology used during this period, and while hardly portable, are relatively simple to bootstrap with existing tech. You can retrofit existing designs with generators and not need to reinvent the wheel.

The neat thing is, other than the actual generator - very little of this tech is 'new' other than how its applied.

If I was trying to do something fancier I'd try to invent a solar powered sterling engine - its a technology of 'that' era, and you wouldn't have issues getting 'decent' glass or polished metal in that era I suspect.

Its also worth considering a few applications of power once you've bootstrapped it

If you wanted a piece of 20th century technology that needed electricity, and was profitable - I'd go with aluminium. Its a metal that was probably (more) than worth its weight in gold in the era, would help jumpstart your economy, especially if you didn't need to work out the process from scratch. I'd also want to figure out welding, which would also give you a massive advantage over other economies with tech like riveting.

  • $\begingroup$ Yeah, welding is glue given by gods. Rivets vere effecrive solution before it, but yeah be able to weld stuff is very convinient thing which extends what can be done. Plasma cutting is another godly technology, it more complex, but it is simplier than solar pannels $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Sep 24, 2021 at 7:34
  • $\begingroup$ Technically high strength handwavium epoxies might work... $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 24, 2021 at 8:22

It is not a fully answer to your question. I am pointing you to some research I made my self 10 years ago. Problem was how to make electricity from solar power without make use of extremely expensive and fragile solar panels.Stirling engines.




It was created close to your time schedule.

Like a curiosity: the wikipedia page on Stirling engines doubled in size since I last visited it.

The person in the story falls through a plot hole into the early 1800 years.

Do you mean a real/bad plot hole?


I would like to include a bit more of information. With Stirling engines you can product electricity from sun light at night :).

I explain. Part of the light that hit the sun light reflector turns into heat. You can collect this heat using water pipes and store this hot water into a big thermos bottle. You can use separated light reflectors to specifically heating the water too. When at night you can use the stirling engines to generate electricity. Photo voltaic panels can not do that.


  • $\begingroup$ Good answer, it can be improved extended, but still, quite good $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 10:16
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you. I have expended some time on the subject in the past. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 24, 2021 at 3:28
  • $\begingroup$ You could also use a Stirling Engine to rewind a weight-driven mechanism (like in a clock). Storing energy as mass in the day, and using it at night. Give it like a month worth of power to store, and it won't run out. This allows for creating a Solar powered clock without a single photo-electric cell. $\endgroup$
    – vinzzz001
    Commented yesterday

Does biomass count? Because if it does, and photosynthezing crops count as renewable, sustainable solar-powered energy, then this becomes far far easier (with the added bonus of allowing your MC to save a bunch of whales from extinction in the process, by driving the whale oil industry out of business quicker)- simply get your MC to start producing biodiesel (and/or biogasoline, or biobutanol), and bring along/identify a bunch of suitable cultivars. IMHO, the advancement of algaculture would probably be your/his best way to accomplish this, with a bunch of other benefits and byproducts (for instance, still allowing for a carbon-negative plastics industry); and it would also provide a low-tech, easily disseminable route to this desired outcome.

If not though, and you really want to usher in the dawn of the solar age in the early 1800's, why not go borrow a few tips from history, and look back in time rather than forwards? The Eygptology craze would just be kicking into high gear around this time, after all. It's been known since the 1930s that simple chemical batteries were used for gold electroplating in Egypt thousands of years ago, albeit initially with the presumption that these could only have been recharged by replacing the chemicals and copper rods inside. And archeologists have been digging up large slabs of copper-etched obsidian stone, along with smaller pieces of similarly boron-rich, phosphorous-infused obsidian stones with inlaid copper wiring, for several centuries. However, these were historically dismissed to be purely decorative, and received no further notice.

It’s only relatively recently, with our own development of solar power, that archaeologists have taken a second look at these relatively ubiquitous panels, further investigated their functionality, and realized that "holy Sh*t, these are all actual working solar panels, created before 4,500BCE, over 600yrs before they even adopted the wheel!" Sure, modern solar panels might be over 100 times as efficient; but this is literal stone-age tech, which could be replicated by any village craftsmen in the world with the proper base materials.

And all your MC would really need to do in order to kick off a 'solar-powered industrial era' would be to discreetly clue a few suitably progressive down-time potential allies (like the Saint-Simonianists of France, the most active Eygptologists in the time period) in on the fact that these slabs of copper-etched obsidian actually generate palpable amounts of electricity when exposed to light. With the added bonus of there being no need for him to expose his uptime knowledge, or otherwise unfathomable genius, via this route. He could even pull this off whilst pretending to be a total idiot- simply claiming to have discovered this by "touchin' one of the copper wires in these things on muh tongue when exposin' it to sunlight, gave me a proper shock guv'nor that it did".

Not only that, but revealing the Ancient Egyptian obsidian solar panels' true functionality to the pre-Napoleonic world could well also unlock a fair few other extremely lucrative and world-changing technologies a lot earlier than IOTL. For instance, they also exhibit mild electroluminescence when an electrical current gets run through them- thus also providing a 'first step' on the path to developing LED's. And when the larger of these obsidian solar panels (of the type found at Giza, a few hundred metres away from the Great Pyramids) got laid out to form a track, it was found that they still generated a strong enough electrical charge (even now, over 6000yrs after their original production) to electro-dynamically levitate similarly-charged copper-bottomed sleds weighing up to 2.5 tonnes a few millimetres above them.

Thus, this would potentially offer the potential to be further refined and developed, if 'rediscovered' at such an early juncture, into partially solving the 'transport revolution' issue by creating a network of fully solar-powered pre-Victorian Era maglev tramway paths, wholly derived from further refinement of the same Ancient Egyptian technology which they used to build their Great Pyramids. Wouldn't that be awesome, and a fittingly quirky detail, to integrate into a pre-Victorian Era 'Solarpunk' setting?

  • $\begingroup$ Yes... after reading a bit about the manufacturing process of solar cells it dawned that this might not be the way. Still, batteries would be great... $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 14:11
  • $\begingroup$ They would, if one were thinking about it exclusively from a modernist technological standpoint. But it's important to note that, back in the time period you're thinking about, the global economy was still based almost solely upon primary industry, especially agriculture. That's where all the jobs and money still were. And your MC isn't going to get anywhere, let alone change the world, without downtime interest or investment. How's he going to convince people to adopt his tech? Cause "preventing global warming" ain't gonna cut it, not when the world's still mired in the Little Ice Age. $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 17:08

Idk, more like a comment

  • What's needed for a solar powered past?

Answering this one - it needs easy low tech solution for that solar thing solution.

What can be an easy one, for great self sufficiency and such.

Forests growing/cultivation.

Growing forests for shipbuilding purposes was a thing, as I heard, so growing forests was not a novel concept.

Trees are natural solar panel and battery in one package - and what one needs is just plant it. Maybe some basic works to maintain forest as well.

The idea of forests preservations wasn't there back in the days, and it had some bad outcomes - de-forestation.

Not a precise number, but 1 km2 of forest produces about 200 tons of fuel per year, dry wood. Which is equivalent to about 1 GWh of termal energy, or with 20% it is 200MWh of electricity. Or 1 km2 sustainably can feed a 24 kW power plant 24.7.365.

Not a lot, but easily achievable with 1800 technologies, and can be replicated by anyone with minimal efforts.

You wanna some higtech stuff then you can introduce plants cloning and selection in forest nurseries. It not necessarly required, as there are other similar approaches, more important is menatlity of processes, making a forest to be a factory, do those things on industrial scales in a systematic and scientific way.

  • $\begingroup$ Processes over tech. You need some clout to enforce those, not an easy thing in a nobility dominated area. But the thought is good. $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 14:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Anderas yep, so as competition edge short term is absent, and long term oil and gas replacing wood and coal. Those problems basically why it didn't happen. And if they had such lroblem, and other energy sources are not available, they do not need time travelers to figure such thing out, they weren't stupid. But yeah, though it a funny idea. With nobility it needs to be one of those nobles to play it out in realm of own manor. May catch up as it easy to see why, and they didn't knew what industrial revolution brings in terms of fruits. So yeah, processes and planting mentality of preservation $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 15:33

I'd not expect to fully bypass fuels — chemical energy is extremely dense, unbeatable as a way to take energy with you. Instead, fill niches where fuels won't compete with the convenience of power falling from the sky. These conveniences are more significant when power & oil grids don't exist yet!

Technologically, don't start from solar panels -> electricity -> battery storage, that relies on too much modern tech. Bootstrap from niches that are easier: the sun heats things 🥵

  • Solar cookers! Low-tech, easy to improvise, and attractive even now to a significant number of people, especially compared to foraging for wood to burn.

  • Home water heaters. (Relevant after plumbing.) E.g. here in Israel they're standard on all homes and we get zero-effort hot water for much of the year. In the pre-electricity past when having a hot bath normally required burning something for half a hour, "install this system once and you can have a zero-effort bath on many days" is I think very tempting.

  • Mirrors (or fresnel lenses) concentrating sun on boiler -> steam -> turbines. The end product doesn't have to be electricity!

    • Industrial off-grid uses? As you yourself say, small workshops that are closed at night might be best targets...

      What about cloudy/winter days? Well, burn something as fallback. I think the steam-engine parts are most of the price anyway, adding both mirrors and a firebox sounds not hard. [bonus: you get a story that's both steampunk and solarpunk ;-]

    • Electrical power plants. At least for big cities that are too dense for direct solar uses by residents.

      Obvious problem: how do you light up the city at night? I don't know whether molten-salt heat storage was at all practical then.
      Other low-tech ways to store energy overnight are gravitational — pull up weights, pump water to a high reservoir. (Try to find problems with built-in storage — e.g. run city water pumps only during the day, fill passive water tower...)
      Finally, burn something as fallback.

      Another hard problem is tracking the sun... Linear parabolic trough designs are probably easier than central-tower?

  • Food refrigeration was a life-transforming technology that was largely impractical before the electrical grid. And it doesn't require that much energy. Could you drive an indoor refrigirator from an outdoor solar engine long before electricity?

    In 1878, at the Universal Exhibition in Paris, Augustin Mouchot displayed Mouchot's engine and won a gold medal in Class 54 for his works, most notably the production of ice using concentrated solar heat. —– https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar-powered_refrigerator

    The funny trick is you don't need energy battery for the night — make enough ice (or a better phase-change material) during the day and stuff can stay usefully cooled until morning.


Stirling engines are just around the corner (invented in 1816)

They will help a lot. If your character does historical research on their design, development and history he can dramatically improve their efficiency and patent those improvements. Linking them to solar thermal energy panels would make their use a lot more widespread.

That said you still have a problem. For all the benefits of 'green energy' particularity solar energy climate is a big issue. Southern Europe could benefit greatly, northern Europe which was where all the industrial development is centered far less! So improving windmill design for greater mechanical efficiency is also an option but also not the total solution. (Indeed perhaps nothing is.)

Lastly you could go with bio fuels (alcohol and methanol etc) but here again that requires the diversion of agricultural production from food production to fuel crops at a time when rising population levels in Europe probably wouldn't make their large scale use sustainable. So probably only suitable for smaller rural communities with the land to spare. One big plus however is though is that there was an enormous amount of animal waste produced by cities and towns of the time. That together with human sewage and crop waste is a readily available source of methane. So look at modern bio-reactor designs and the technologies linked to them for collecting & safely storing methane as well as engine designs best suited to running off it. And it is also a bad greenhouse gas so heavy industry on a national scale running off it is going to have leakages.

The basic problem remains though. There's a reason coal was used as the foundation of the industrial revolution. It's energy dense, was readily available right where it was needed and cheap to extract. That's going to be a hard combo to beat. So while you can reduce its dominance you may not be able to eliminate it entirely.

Best your character can probably do is introduce engineering improvements that 'make his name' and establish some of the technologies listed above so that they come into use while also publishing 'research' that points to potential of solar power, electrolysis (hydrogen) and other technologies so that their development is fast forwarded in time to meet oil head on.


I have an... economic notice.

Why bother constructing all the high-tech stuff in the 1800s world when your character can simply import all that from our 2020s world? Sure, local construction would be better, but a lot of the technological toolchains is missing.

To take the less obvious: modern Li-ion cells need a microcontroller to be charged in a proper and safe manner. Even if they would manage to produce the actual cells, they might need to import the controllers from the modern world.

... but this is a very different kind of story, I fear.

Well, as we make it different, let's just cull the amount of dead dinosaurs down there. There are much more scarce resources on oil and gas in this world. Maybe, less coal, too. (But how does the steel production work in that would up to the "current" 1800s then?) So, they have no other choice, but to go green.

And, by the way, do they have Uranium? What about dams and hydroelectric plants?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ This is not an answer to the question, nor is it a challenge to the viability of the question. It is a proposal for an entirely different story. Although perhaps interesting to discuss somewhere, it doesn’t belong as an answer on Stack Exchange. $\endgroup$
    – SRM
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 4:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Previous comment has the point, but on the other hand this answer absolutley correct in a sense of pointing huge flaw with the question scenario. I would not call it economical note, but technological nuke for proposed scenario. This is good no-answer, and it diserves an upvote. $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 10:12
  • $\begingroup$ They can't set up an import-export shop. They're sent back alone and that's it. $\endgroup$
    – Anderas
    Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 14:19
  • $\begingroup$ Can they return with pockets full of microchips? Alluminum? Platinum? Can they bring a laptop with them? A ebook reader? A smartphone? Quartz armband watches alone would cost a fortune in 1800s! It needs some research, but I would dare say that they are on par with then-contemporary navy chronographs. (And that a battery in a quartz watch dies in a year or two and no replacement is in sight, is a bonus for the trade.) $\endgroup$ Commented Sep 13, 2021 at 21:52

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