Nothing new under the sun?: solar heating’s Philadelphia story

One thing I feel sure of and that is that the human race must finally utilize direct sun power or revert to barbarism.  [Because of the depletion of coal and oil]. I would recommend all far-sighted engineers and inventors to work in this direction to their own profit, and the eternal welfare of the human race. –Frank Shuman, Scientific American, 1914.

Above is a solar thermal collector located on the roof adjacent to FLUXSpace in Kensington.  Though it wasn’t operational this past Sunday, the glass tubes were pinging and crackling in the white hot midday sun.  This array consists of a bank of glass vaccuum tubes filled with either water or another fluid with a lower boiling point.  The liquid is heated under pressure, sent to a a heat exchanger and then, presumably, to a turbine or generator.  This array was almost ready to go; some liquid in the tubes, some copper pipe hookups and this collector could have been cranking out kW.

Though many wouldn’t know it, solar thermal heating has a Philadelphia story.  It starts with a young German-American tinkerer named Frank Shuman who as a youth would travel days from his chemical engineering day job in West Virginia to fool around with cutting edge projects at his uncle Francis Schuman’s Tacony Iron and Metal Company.  (Tacony Iron and Metal not only produced the multi-part bronze casting of William Penn for City Hall but also developed the electroplating process to protect the finish).  The elder Schuman brought exceptional inventive minds to his shop and the young Shuman (he dropped the “c” to appear less German) relished the intellectual repartee of these problem solvers.

Shuman marveled at how glass trapped solar energy and built an series of hot boxes–a kind of proto array–at his compound at 4600 Disston St.  After he ran a toy train on ether vaporized by the sun in his array, he was convinced that solar energy could drive things.  He insulated his boxes better, built semi-convexreflectors around them to better focus the sun’s rays, put them on swivels to follow the sun, put his water in a vacuum (like the above model), and in a major breakthrough he coupled a low pressure steam engine to his array.  By 1910 he was able to write dowdy conservative Philadelphia investors that he had developed a fuel-less rival to coal–a device that may have required more to start but nothing to run.   And like a green P.T. Barnum, he showed it off.  He held public demonstrations at his compound, invited kids from Tacony and prospective venture capitalists to see his sun engine pump 3000 gallons of water per minute 33 feet in the air.

Shuman knew that if he could produce this steam pressure at 40 degrees north, his engine would hum in the tropics.  Experts predicted nearly 25 percent more steam in tropical climes.   Shuman traveled to London to seek capital for a commercial scale solar venture.  England groaned under the cost of sending coal to its tropical colonies and Shuman needed to make money.  An adept salesman, he got the financial backing he needed to set up a solar powered irrigation plant in Egypt in 1913.  [Sun1913. This Swiss Federal Office of Culture website offers an overview of the project in both English and Arabic]

[FRANK SHUMAN’S 1913 EGYPTIAN SOLAR ARRAY]

A.N. Whitehead once said that “the greatest invention of the 19th century was the invention of the method of invention.”  Institutionalized innovation has long been the dream of economic development pros since the arrival of tools, and while some countries or regions think they do it well, inventing invention has been elusive at best.  While much is up to the individual, there is a social component to innovation that explains why Frank Shuman traveled 400 miles from Parkersburg, WVa. to rub labcoats with Philadelphia’s brightest technologists.  The Philadelphia of Shuman’s youth was this great creative milieu out of which grew the products and processes that made the ‘Workshop of the World’.  Philadelphia’s mechanics, designers, inventors, tinkerers, skeptics, and financiers all wanted to join in that conversation about how to do something better.  This healthy, throaty dialogue produced one of the most complex industrial ecosystems in all the United States.  While a short walk/ride through any of this city’s neighborhoods confirms this fact, the lingering afterimage is of the decayed body rather than the transcendent spirit.  So to see Frank Shuman’s invention on a roof in Kensington suggests that all this innovation isn’t entombed beneath layers of nostalgia.

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