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Back to the Future: Solar Genius Frank Shuman

Every age has its Leonardo, Benjamin Franklin, Nikola Tesla, or Elon Musk. Every age also has inventors lost to history, who were either ahead of their time or simply overshadowed by those with a gift for self promotion. Frank Shuman (1862-1918) was one of these. Brilliant, but lacking the brashness of the Wizard of Menlo Park.


“One thing I feel sure of . . . is that the human race must finally utilize direct sun power or revert to barbarism,” Shuman wrote in a 1914 Scientific American article.

The Sunengine

Shuman was a Brooklyn-born Philadelphia transplant who, like other inventors of the day, tinkered in his garage. He started out conventionally enough by inventing wire safety glass that was used in Victorian-era skylights. Twenty years later he disrupted that technology by creating safety glass sans wire. Additionally, he created mechanized danger signals for railroad crossings, pioneered the use of liquid oxygen to propel submarines, and figured out how to electroplate the mammoth statue of William Penn on top of Philadelphia’s City Hall.

Shuman accrued patents at a feverish pace on par with Thomas Edison. But then, recounts blogger Christopher R. Doughtery, “on the expansive lawn between an ivy-covered house and workshop at Disston and Ditman Streets, Shuman integrated his deep knowledge of glass, optics, and convection heating to create a powerful array capable of doing actual work.” He tinkered with insulated boxes, swiveling convex reflectors that tracked and concentrated the sun’s rays, and created a vacuum chamber that lowered water’s boiling point and attached it to a low-pressure steam engine. He called his invention the sunengine. The sunengine was a steam engine that used free solar energy as its fuel instead of dirty coal.

Shuman’s 1907 brochure to promote solar power. Love the graphic, but I don’t think it’d fly today. Source:

Shuman’s first sunengine rattled away each sunny day for over two years outside his house in Philly’s tony Tacony neighborhood. Sure, it wasn’t the Niagara Falls power plant, but it was proof-of-concept. Switching to solar power was in the best interests of “the eternal welfare of the human race,” Shuman declared. The press took notice; the sunengine was featured in Engineering News, Nature, and other leading journals of the day.

Shuman formed the Sun Power Company and raised money to scale up his invention for mass production. He and his workers created collector boxes that focused solar rays with mirrors, allowing heated water (instead of steam) to power a modified, lower-pressure steam engine. Scientific American featured him as a 20th-century tinkerer.

Here’s the sunengine in 1907 featured in Technical World magazine:

The true essence of steampunk.

The true essence of steampunk.

Bringing Solar Energy to Egypt

Word of the sunengine made its way across the Atlantic Ocean; the Brits loved the idea because they were tired of paying for coal. In 1912 they invited Shuman to build a giant sunengine in Maadi, Egypt, a southern suburb of Cairo. Maadi was designed by the British to be upscale and Western, with wide boulevards, large houses, spacious yards, and luscious gardens. Sun there was plentiful; coal was not.

Shuman’s sunengine was comprised of 5 parabolic solar collectors, each about 200 feet long and 10 feet wide. Water was piped through the boilers that run along the center of each collector, where it heated up and turned to steam to power a 70 horsepower engine that pumped 6,000 gallons of water per minute from the Nile River to irrigate crops. It was expensive to build but cheap to operate.

The sunengine performed its duties admirably until Archduke Franz Ferdinand was killed and World War I broke out. The British swiftly dismantled Shuman’s power plant so the metal could be used for weapons. Shuman died before the war ended and his invention appeared to die with him.

The Maadi sunengine under construction.

The Maadi sunengine under construction.

A hundred years later in 2014, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson restored Shuman’s reputation in his reboot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. In the episode titled “The World Set Free,” Tyson discusses climate change and features Shuman and fellow inventor Augustin Mouchot, a French inventor a generation before Shuman whose work with solar energy was inspired by his prescient belief that some day we might run out of fossil fuels. Both Shuman and Mouchot appear in animated form in the episode, looking virile and having epiphanies.

Animated Frank Shuman, looking a lot like Teddy Roosevelt. Source: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

Animated Frank Shuman, looking a lot like Teddy Roosevelt. Source: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey.

Shuman and Mouchot had the same thoughts, Tyson explains. Shuman did the math and figured the solution was a giant solar array in the Sahara Desert, about 20,000 square miles, or roughly the size of West Virginia, would be big enough to free the world from the scourge of coal.

Tyson’s point is that solar power isn’t a new idea; the technology is old and we’ve lost precious time in the fight against climate change through our ignorance of history. To ignore what science is plainly telling us about our warming planet is to risk the Earth’s atmosphere turning into a soup of sulfuric acid and carbon dioxide, like Venus’s. Nobody wants to live on Venus.

Shuman might have been lost to the dustbin of history were it not for the Historical Society of Tacony, which lovingly preserved many of the inventor’s papers from oblivion. As today’s tinkerers and makers channel their ingenuity toward solving our energy problems, they don’t have to recreate the wheel. As Doughtery says, “Shuman should be an inspiration for our civic creativity.” Let’s put some historical perspective into today’s STEM programs.


Posted on: December 2, 2015, 10:26 am Category: Admin

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