Solar Dreams: a history of solar energy (1878 - 2025)

Prologue: Daydreaming

November, 1878
Paris, France

Constantino Serrano, Captain in the Chilean Army and Military Attaché was thirsty. He could endure a march of a day without much trouble, but the energy of his company still left her expended. Mademoiselle Dominique Demolle, a charming Parisian girl who worked in the diplomatic corps proved almost too much for him, to the point of not paying too much attention to the gigantic bust that France was building as a gift to the United States, which left Dominique awestruck.
"Don't you find it amazing?" she asked.
"It is... something else. Will they ever complete it?"
"Yes, to the best of my knowledge."
To the best of her knowledge. A simple phrase that betrayed her true job. They were, in a sense, colleagues. The work of a military attaché gave a veneer of acceptability to what he truly did. But they still liked her, and suspected that she liked him as well.
"My god, your lips are dry... why didn't you tell me you were thirsty?"
"I... I didn't want to bother you, Mademoiselle."
"Nonsense! Actually... I know just what you need right now."

And what he needed, apparently, was a giant metallic funnel. It was connected to a boiler, and steam occasionally poured from a valve. No boiler, though... unless that thing was it? But how could it work with no coal or visible fires?
It didn't matter. What it mattered was that the machine produced ice, and with it the possibility of an ice cold lemonade for the noon. He drank it in one go, mildly embarrassing himself in front of Dominique. It felt good, the chill pouring down his throat. It revived him, and gave him back his wits. Mademoiselle Demolle and Captain Serrano took another look at the machine. It funneled solar energy, concentrating it on a structure which then heated water, thus boiling it without a fire. Or rather, not one in this planet. Captain Serrano and his friend inquired a lot about the machine. It would replace coal, eventually. Or so its inventor claimed, Augustin Mouchot. A mild mannered fellow, who contrasted with the energy of Dominique. Constantino wondered if he would have met this man if he had followed his dream of becoming an engineer instead of becoming a man of arms like his family intended. Constantino wondered many things.

The day started sweet, but ended in tears. As the sun set, Dominique confessed her love for him, pleaded for him to stay with her, to make a new life in France. To ditch his military career, and to find a future together. Constantino struggled with himself. He wanted to say yes, he knew that the military life wasn't for him. He hated gunpowder, he hated war, and he hated himself for what he did to that Mapuche boy, back in the forest of the southern Chile. He told her that she deserved someone better, someone who didn't have his hands stained with blood.

A week later, he was embarking back to Chile.

November, 1879
Tarapacá, Bolivia

Constantino and his men waited. Scouts had located a Bolivian column marching on his direction, and his unit was in the best position to intercept and ambush them. The only problem was, they were taking too much time, and his men were getting idle. It was midday, and the predicted arrival still hadn't come. Constantino inspected his men. They were sharp still, already accustomed to the merciless sun of the desert, and for the most part disciplined. Time and again, the bolivians broke against that discipline.
So he was surprised when he saw a few of his men drinking yerba mate. A hot drink meant a fire, and fire meant smoke. This whole operation would be risked by this one idiot. As if by reflex, he drew his revolver and asked who was responsible for it.
"I am." Answered a voice he knew. It came from Alejandro Puig, a crafty Corporal, and one of his best scouts. He knew he was valuable, and that he could get away with some insubordination.
"Are you aware of the risks involved with lighting a fire?"
"Yes, I am. I haven't lit one."
"And yet you had boiling water. How?"
"Let me show you."
He retrieved a dozen or so corvo knives, and arranged them in such a way to concentrate the reflection of the sun in one spot beneath a stove. Within minutes, the water inside was boiling. Wihout any advanced knowledge or theoretical understanding, Puig had recreated Mouchot's principles.

Memories of Paris came. Of Dominique Demolle, and of that last day in Paris. He remembered how that cold drink had changed his attitude, and maybe he'd lift morale and readiness by giving his men a treat. So he ordered Puig to demonstrate to the Company, the Décimo de Cazadores, Within the hour, every most men were enjoying a hot cup of mate. It was a small detail, but the spirits of his men were higher when they finally made contact with the enemy. It served them well, for the actual force was three times the one reported. The Bolivians were ragged and their morale was clearly low, but they still had numerical superiority.

But maybe they could exploit that. Maybe they could avoid further bloodshed by striking hard and fast. Catch them when they weren't expecting anything. And so, he ordered to proceed with the ambush. The Bolivians were either too confident or unprofessional. They didn't deploy any scouts or forward guard to screen traps. They paid for it, as the Chileans engaged in hit and run tactics. Small squads fired frantically on the Bolivians, who reacted too slowly. One squad sprang, fired a few shots and then disappeared behind the hills. Then another did the same. Then his own selected squad. Whatever fighing spirit the Bolivians had, it evaporated after a few hours. One man threw his gun, then another, then a dozen, then most of the rest.

By the time it was over, 150 Bolivians had surrendered, and 75 laid dead or dying. His casualties amounted to 8. Still, 150 men wouldn't die today. He was elated. Too elated to notice that a bullet to his foot had put him among those 8 casualties. But adrenaline wore off soon afterwards. Pain surfaced, and with it the realization that blood was everywhere. Conscience faded, flashes of Dominique holding him interrupted by Puig's desperate shouts. Paris and Tarapacá melding in his dimming mind. The Sun, touching his face and blinding his view.

By 1884, Chile had beaten both Peru and Bolivia and expanded north up to Tacna. The immense mineral wealth of the Antofagasta and Tarapacá provinces would be a boon to the economy of the young Republic. But the biggest treasure wasn't beneath the ground, but in the sky above.
Solar Energy wasn't a new concept in Tarapacá. A primitive desalinization plant had been developed in 1872, and there's evidence that the Inca used a similar device in some capacity for food preservation. But it wasn't until the industrialization of the now Chilean north that the region's true potential began to be exploited. No other part in the world received as much solar irradiance as northern Chile, and by a unique set of circumstances, a downtrodden French inventor and a wounded Chilean veteran would harness that energy.

Away from the Great Powers of the time, away from the politics and petty games between European monarchies, the seeds of the 20th Century were being sown in the desert.
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Especially Low Tech Mag style green energy. Are there any good links you are using for Mouchot's device, or for the desalinization plant in Tarapaca or the possible Inca practices? I'm intrigued by all of this.
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Chapter 1
October 1883
Especially Low Tech Mag style green energy. Are there any good links you are using for Mouchot's device, or for the desalinization plant in Tarapaca or the possible Inca practices? I'm intrigued by all of this.

The Inca part is completely fictional, and should be taken as an in-universe speculation about exploitation of solar energy before current times. ITL, people find solar production to be an obvious solution to energetic problems.

The solar desalinizator is, in fact, real and was used before the War of the Pacific. Here's a photo of the system taken in 1908:


As for Mouchot's designs, I'm using the design seen in the 1878 Universal Expo.
Chapter 1
Part 1: Chasing smoke

May, 1883
La Rochelle, France

Constantino Serrano limped away from the port. The voyage should have felt exhausting, but after his short experience in war, nothing really felt that tiring anymore. The War of the Pacific was ending, and Chile would soon enjoy the spoils of victory. Accompanying him was Alejandro Puig, the man who saved his life. He wasn't born on what Serrano would call a "Good Family", and he didn't care about them, but he was a more learned man than those who deluded themselves into believing they were part of an aristocracy back in the Americas. The same resourcefulness he displayed in the desert, he used in his everyday life. Which is why he was with him in France. Puig would ask, and would investigate, and would probably find Mouchot.

Because Constantino wasn't able. Not just with a description and a vague understanding of the man's work. He was talented in talking to people, and getting from them what he wanted. Which is why he got this particular job in the first place: he convinced his employers that there was a way to get steam power without coal, for free. But finding people? that was beyond his abilities.

So Puig led him to the library. "If he was invited to that Expo, there's a good chance that someone interviewed him." Puig and Serrano gathered old newspapers of the time, some scientific journals and magazines. They scanned every page for clues, ran across some similar names and close calls, and it took them five hours, but they had something by the end of the day: Augustin Mouchot, with a laboratory in Rennes, or it was there five years ago.

The next evening they were asking for directions in that city's train station. Puig could speak and read French, but his inexperience with pronunciation was noticeable. The locals laughed more than once, which didn't happen to Serrano. Rennes didn't have a university, or an academy of sciences, so the next place to look was in the local board of education. There, they got a direction of a lab.

Except that the "lab" was now a general goods store.

"This is good. We know who his landlord was. We can ask him." Said Puig. That netted them an address. And with it, their man.

Later that day

Puig and Serrano awaited for Mouchot near his home. Not directly in front to raise an alarm, but close enough. He arrived late, and not in a good shape. Serrano knew a man in financial distress when he saw one, and suspected that the frenchman was overexerted after a day of hard work. Mouchot was gruff and tired, and not in the mood for humoring strangers.
"Good evening... Monsieur Mouchot, is it?" - Said Serrano.
"It's good night. And yes, I am. Who's asking?"
"You might not remember me, but I saw your machine in the Paris Expo."
"Oh. Ohh, yes. The Exposition Universelle. A century or so ago. I wish I had never made that cursed thing. It had no future."
"Why is that? The solar collector worked just fine."
"It worked, but then the rosbifs flooded France with coal. No need for my machine anymore... but why do you care?"
"Because I have seen your machine in action. Also, I've seen that it works. My assistant here, he could tell you more."
"And who'd you be, gentlemen?"
"I'm Augustin Serrano, former Captain of the Chilean Army and now working for the Tarapacá Saltpeter Company. This is my assistant, Alejandro Puig."
"You're a bit far from home, aren't you?"
"Indeed. But we've seen the potential of your machine. Alejandro here, also harnessed the power of the sun." - he told the experiences boiling water without fire. - "We've made a demonstrator for our higher ups, but we're not experts."
"And you have come here for my knowledge? Do you want to buy it?"
"We want you to come back with us. TSC is ready to offer you a research position with a salary of £2,000... plus a budget of £10,000 for development of solar collectors."

Mouchot looked at the two men, awestruck. He looked as if he was about to cry.

"Do you have any idea of how difficult it has been? With this damned treaty rendering my invention worthless? I had to close my laboratory and sell my machines for scrap! The future of energy production, scrapped! So you better tell me the truth. Tell me this is a real offer, and not some scam"
This would happen. The offer was too good to be believed, so they had to have proof. £100 in cash, and instructions for Mouchot to contact several banks in London to verify the accounts of the TSC.

It took five days, but they received an answer from Mouchot: "This better is worth my time. I don't want to be disappointed again."

Augustin Mouchot attained some fame as an inventor in his native France for his invention. But against the cheap and abundant coal provided by Britain, the Solar Collector just couldn't compete in its immature state. Even in the Atacama desert, coal would have been a more cost effective solution, if not for Chile's own naval ambitions that made fuel rather expensive despite local production of adequate quality.
Crucially, Mouchot's collectors were easier and safer to operate and required less personnel than coal boilers. This advantage was important for an industry that saw frequent strikes and stoppages of workers demanding better working conditions. Important enough to demand innovation among the traditionally conservative and antiquated Chilean upper classes.
It's going to be quite an interesting journey for these three. Can't wait to see more as they try to make it big in the Atacama.
This is amazingly well thought out. A lot of solar power stuff is very handwavy about prices and industrial realities. this one is not. I am very impressed.
This is amazingly well thought out. A lot of solar power stuff is very handwavy about prices and industrial realities. this one is not. I am very impressed.

I wanted to update today, but my day went in an hour or so it felt with the amount of work I'm doing.

As for the story, I am doing as much research as I can about the topic. The idea is that solar is developed to the point of exhaustion with the level of technology available (instead of OTL, where Mouchot's work was pretty much forgotten).

However, this advancement in solar energy, specially heat production, will have further consequences in the development of science and technology, and with them a societal impact.
Why am I not surprised that Mouchot's invention was pushed to the side by money? The same happened to the earliest, 19th century inquiries about global warming.

Fast forward to today, and we're heading face first into the greatest mass extinction since a literal asteroid fell to Earth.

Dio cane.
Why am I not surprised that Mouchot's invention was pushed to the side by money? The same happened to the earliest, 19th century inquiries about global warming.

Fast forward to today, and we're heading face first into the greatest mass extinction since a literal asteroid fell to Earth.

Dio cane.
Go easy on the contemporary politics. This is a great TL as is, and we don't want to get it shut down with Chat-tier stuff.
Why am I not surprised that Mouchot's invention was pushed to the side by money? The same happened to the earliest, 19th century inquiries about global warming.

Fast forward to today, and we're heading face first into the greatest mass extinction since a literal asteroid fell to Earth.

Dio cane.

Mouchot's machines were forgotten because they weren't competitive against an established market. There are a lot of technologies that develop earlier than we think but have to be reinvented because there was no demand for them at the time.

The Differential Machine, early electric cars, even early assault rifles were discarded due to the lack of a need for them, without the need to fall for conspiracies about technological suppression.

This TL needs a lot of authorial fiat to get kickstarted, because Mouchot's machines would have been perfect for the Atacama desert in a time when industrial production in the zone was high. This story needs a lot of coincidences to set that particular stage, and I like to think about it as an outlier against a majority of timelines where Mouchot's work remained a curiosity.
The Differential Machine, early electric cars, even early assault rifles were discarded due to the lack of a need for them, without the need to fall for conspiracies about technological suppression.
The case of the differential machine has more to do with Babbage being a brilliant inventor but an incompetent manager who kept getting distracted by the new shiny. The government was willing to support him to the point of giving him ten times the original estimate for building the machine, but instead of focusing on delivering what the customer wanted he kept refining the concept and developing new and "improved" designs that required more money to develop, and so on and so forth.

The fact that Scheutz was able to obtain government support and sell difference engines to the Victorian government less than a decade after it had officially given up on Babbage's model (which inspired Scheutz!) shows clearly that the problem lay with Babbage as opposed to the technology or the interests of the time.
Chapter 2
Part 2: Sowing the seeds

July, 1883
Tarapaca Saltpeter Company's Offices, Chile

Augustin Mouchot wasn't comfortable in the desert. It wasn't the heat or the dryness, but the omnipresent sense of danger he had acquired in the erg of Algeria, where every dune could have a Magrebi rebel behind it.
But the Atacama wasn't an Erg. There were no dunes here, just an sun blasted landscape where life barely scrapped by. No people lived in these parts before, not in the desert itself, although ge heard that the indians made good use of the valleys and the coast.

But these wastelands? They might as well be another planet to Mouchot. The industrial operation that rose was a triumph of modernity, and it justly belonged to the men that made it possible. The workers went through their day, too tired to notice or oblivious to the foreigner escorted by two veterans with old wounds. He and the two Chileans walked towards the invention they developed on their own.

It surprised Mouchot. It wasn't a complex device by any means, but the design devised by Puig was more elegant than he thought such an un polished (but, in Mouchot's opinion, very sharp) intellect could formulate. A parabolic profile, five meters across and one wide. With a pipe painted black on the focal point. It had an operator that regularly adjusted its position to follow the sun.

"You took advantage of a parabola. I had plans to incorporate such a feature in my future collectors." Said Mouchot, complimenting the Chilean.
"A what now?" Answered Puig, puzzled by the word. "You mean like Our lord Jesus Christ?"
"Uh, no. I meant that you used a mathematical principle to focus every incoming ray in a single point."
"I don't know much about that. I just pointed a mirror towards the same spot and this pattern appeared. Then I painted it black because that way it'd heat up faster."
"Good catch on the black coat. I hadn't thought about it... By my estimations, your design should boil about a liter of water per second with the current conditions. But not enough to do any meaningful work. It's "cold" steam, if the concept makes sense to you."
"Yeah, that's the idea. It reaches as steam to the main boiler. There's where the steam reaches its' temperature and pressure. I don't know the correct term, but it helps the boiler to operate faster, use less coal to reach the same temperatures."
"You basically made the boiler skip the step of adding the heat of fusion. That is indeed clever... and you say you never studied?"
"Not after my father died when I was eleven. I had to support my family after that, but by that time I already spoke French and could do some fancy math."
"It's a shame you couldn't advance your education. What you did here, by trial and error, is a remarkable device... I can see some faults, like making the parabola too "high" where a shallower design would serve just as well, but those are some minor considerations, all in all."
"Well..." Puig stopped, unaccostumed to receive praise from what he thought were his superiors. "Thank you, sir."
"Now, Monsieur Serrano told me that this boiler was used in the drying of saltpeter concentrate, right?"
"That's correct, sir."
"I believe that we can adapt your linear design to bring the steam to full pressure, doing away with the boiler entirely. Maybe even exceed the performance of the coal powered one, if we take advantage of this savage sun. That'll be a good place to start, and after that we could focus on motive power for the machines."

August, 1883

Constantino was in an unknown territory. He knew humanity was progressing at staggering rates. He had seen the evolution from muskets to bolt action rifles, the growth of the rail network and the instantaneous spread of word through cables. But those things occured far away. They were foreign, not something that happened in these lands. Not something that interested the men present at this ceremony.

But this time, he was at the center stage of progress. He didn't contribute with the theory, like Augustin, or by being the link between theory and the workers, like Alejandro. But he knew the numbers, he could convey them to his superiors and in turn get what he needed from them. And now, he'd give what they wanted from him: A coal-less boiler. A cheaper alternative to the boilers brought from England. And safer to boot, which meant less liabilities and less costs.
Alejandro was directing the operators in their white suits with dark glasses, giving them an inhuman appearance. Mouchot was warning the young ladies to not use the mirrors to correct their makeup, the sun was too intense to be safe. And Constantino was guiding the board of directors through the device, mentioning every part of it and its function. They were curious, but a curiosity mixed with skepticism. He then directed all of them to their seats.

Mouchot stood on a podium, surrounded by mirrors. He began to speak in French.

"Ladies and Gentlemen. What we have here is proof that we can dispense with coal and instead use a source far more powerful, cheap and clean than it. A source of heat that can reach higher temperatures, faster, and safely. Without the fire of other sources, no smoke needs to be pumped out, and no soot is accumulated. There's little risk for the operators to lose limb or life, and in case of exceeding the safety parameters, all that is needed to quell the danger is adequate shade.
I am a man of numbers, not of words and so I won't give you a long speech. But, thanks to the work of my colleague Alejandro Puig, which came up with the germ from which this design grew, I can give you a glimpse of the future. A future with enough energy for all our needs. A future as bright as the sun.

Monsieur Director, you can start operations of this machine when you are ready."

The industrial processing of saltpeter provided with an excellent first environment for the development of Solar Collectors. Drying the acid-based solution of the nitrate was done mostly by exposing it to the air, and on a smaller scale with coal-powered boilers.
The first Solar Collector to be used on an industrial scale, christened the Mouchot-Puig Boiler, was able to heat steam to a temperature of 1000 °C, and did so during its initial demonstration. Reportedly, the occasion almost ended in embarrassment as the steel pipes expanded beyond expectations, but this was ignored for the spectacle of watching it turning from metallic to brown to red to a bright orange-yellow as the steam inside reached enormous temperatures, as if by magic.

Within two months, the Mouchot-Puig Boiler was reducing the time of drying - an important bottleneck in nitrate production - by 75%, at virtually no cost for the TSC. This, in turn, gave Mouchot and his team plenty of work for the immediate future, retarding his plans for more elaborate designs. On the long run, however, it also gave them the prestige and leeway to pursue those same designs.
REALLY good stuff. I always wanted to explore a late 19th/early 20th century development of solar energy in a TL of mine, but I would have never thought of having it start in Chile! Also, never heard about Mouchot and its work, really interesting.